David Bowie | Metrobolist (aka The Man Who Sold the World) | (Parlophone/Rhino)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
“Everything old is new again,” goes the cliché and that is never truer than in the world of deceased musicians. Certainly it’s the case with David Bowie whose seemingly endless stream of reissues (colored vinyl, compilations, demos, expanded editions and the like) is enough to keep even the hardest core fan confused.
Whether David Bowie would have approved of much of the product released after he departed this mortal coil in 2016 is unknown, but this 50th anniversary edition would likely have gotten his thumbs up. Not only has it returned to its original title of Metrobolist (seemingly a made up word) but the art work is overseen by Mike Waller who was responsible for the initial design. Most importantly, the audio has been remixed again (there was a 2015 upgrade too), this time by longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, who also played bass on the recording. Since Visconti was Bowie’s close associate for decades, this sonic refresh would likely have been sanctioned by the UK icon.
Bowie hadn’t hit his sweet spot on this, his third album, released in England in 1970 (but not in the US until 1971). Yet the first appearance of two musicians who would eventually become the core of his Spiders from Mars band (drummer Mick Woodmansey and guitarist Mick Ronson), makes it a key early entry into Bowie’s catalog.
The approach is a combination of prog, psychedelic blues rock and some folk, a little of which goes a long way. The best selections are the most famous ones, namely the opening eight minute riff rocking “The Width of a Circle” and the title track, somewhat buried as the eighth out of nine tunes on the record’s second side. There are reasons why the folksy hard rocking “Black Country Rock,” the jammy “Saviour Machine” and the sludgy “She Shook Me Cold” don’t appear on most Bowie compilations or his live sets. The only selection that Visconti didn’t update is the artsy, dreamy “After All,” something of a lost gem that tried to replicate the style of “Space Oddity,” adding an odd middle oom-pah riff. He felt it was already perfect. The closing “The Superman” is another strange but interesting combination of progressive rock and blues, enhanced by some peculiar female backing singers, but just too twisty and weird to connect.
Visconti’s audio tinkering has unquestionably improved these songs. That may upset purists but he brings a crisp immediacy that was lacking from the initial mix without slicking things up. Overall, between the art work and sound upgrades, this is probably closer to what Bowie was after on an album that remains far from his best work.