David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed
Nothing Has Changed (3-CD Deluxe Edition)
Columbia / Legacy; 2014
By Douglas Wolk November 20, 2014
BEST NEW REISSUE
To pick a few selected works from an artist’s career is to construct an argument about that artist. Every curator knows that, and David Bowie is nothing if not a curator. The first great Bowie best-of was 1976’s Changesonebowie LP, whose argument was that he was a mamapapa comin’ for you, a rocker too strong and too glittery to be pinned down. (The 1981Changestwobowie LP and the 1990 Changesbowie CD, stabbed in its gut by the dreadful remix “Fame ’90”, tried to extend that premise.) Bowie’s initial attempt at a full-career assessment was the 1989 Sound + Vision box set, revised and updated in 2003. In both forms, it’s a bunch of hits and album tracks and rarities clumped together, an impressive show of range whose failure is that it assumes, rather than argues, that he’s a rock god and that therefore anything he does is interesting.
Twenty-five years later, coinciding with an actual touring museum exhibition of the apparatus around his music, Bowie has assembled a new retrospective. Nothing Has Changed—a very sly title, as a riposte to Changesonebowie and “Changes”, especially since it’s also a lyric lifted from his 2002 song “Sunday”—comes in three different versions, each with a cover image of Bowie regarding himself in a mirror. That’s a sharp gesture too: he’s never been shy about his fascination with his own mercurial self, shedding his skin again and again and then carefully preserving it to wriggle into again later. (This is not the first time he’s done the “multiple versions of a greatest-hits set” trick, either: 2002’s Best of Bowie had twenty different track lineups, depending on which country you bought it in.)
The weakest of the three versions of Nothing Has Changed is the chronologically sequenced 2xCD version. It’s basically just a slight revision of Best of Bowie, compressed to throw in five later songs including the newly recorded oddity “Sue (or In a Season of Crime)”. The first disc starts with his commercial breakthrough “Space Oddity” and ends with its sequel/repudiation “Ashes to Ashes”, which is a nice bit of symmetry. Mostly, what we get is Bowie as he’s understood by oldies radio, although we’re seven tracks in before he really starts to toughen up (with “Ziggy Stardust”).
But the second half of the 2xCD version covers three times as many years as the first, and suggests that Bowie was a temporarily interesting trend-follower whose fade-out has been slowed by his being repeatedly propped up and dragged into modernity by big-name collaborators: Queen, Pat Metheny, Pet Shop Boys, Trent Reznor, James Murphy. This Bowie’s sense of tune eventually abandons him and never returns. After the look back in sorrow of “Absolute Beginners”, halfway through the second disc, he’s coasting on his rep; it’s just one decent comeback attempt after another, with “Sue” at the end as a sort of I-give-up-but-here’s-something-new-anyway gesture. That’s a reasonable case to make; it also misses most of what’s magical about this particular artist.
The 2xLP version of Nothing Has Changed makes a simpler and happier argument, that this is a dude with a lot of big hits and a peculiar arty streak. It’s a non-chronological set, mostly songs that you might want to play if you were DJing a party—three out of 20 are the singles from Let’s Dance. The sides have something like thematic unity: Bowie the dancefloor-filler and lighter-waver, Ziggy/Aladdin the glam spaceman, David the magisterial vocalist and pop experimentalist (this is where “Sue” lands), and You-Know-Who the introspective eminence grise (concluding with last year’s “Where Are We Now?”). You could do worse.
The 3xCD Nothing Has Changed, though, is the jewel among the three variations on the same core material. Its masterstroke is that its 59 tracks appear in reverse chronological order. To end a greatest-hits with “Sue” is to remind listeners that there’s a good moment to hit the stop button. To begin it with “Sue”—the longest track on the whole thing—smacks us to attention. This is Bowie as he wants us to encounter him, as a practitioner of fine art whose interests have occasionally, improbably, marvelously intersected with pop of the moment. “Sue”, written and recorded with Maria Schneider and her jazz orchestra, announces its intentions from the moment Bowie’s actorly baritone warbles in: it’s the latest in his line of homages to Scott Walker, the double whose guise is the one role he’s never been able to play. (The artistic relationship between Bowie and Walker—so similar, so different—is a complicated topic on its own; the comprehensive Bowie blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame includes a pair of brilliant posts about it.)
For at least the rest of its first disc, the 3xCD version reframes latter-day Bowie as an alternate-universe version of Walker, a solemn avant-gardist who keeps trying to rocket out beyond pop and keeps being drawn back into its gravity well. That makes his later work a lotmore interesting, it turns out. This is a Bowie who never runs out of fresh ways to gaze back at himself in the mirror. There are three tracks here from his never-released 2001 album Toy: reworked versions of a pair of songs from his youth, and the lovely obscurity “Your Turn to Drive”, which is as close as he’s ever come to dreampop. And it’s hard to miss the science fiction that’s never totally left his lyrics when James Murphy’s remix of “Love Is Lost” (with its quotation from “Ashes to Ashes”) appears next to “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “New Killer Star”, and just down the hall from Pet Shop Boys’ reworking of “Hallo Spaceboy” (which itself incorporates a William S. Burroughs-style cut-up of lines from “Space Oddity”).
The edited and remixed versions of Bowie’s post-1995 singles that populate the first disc are all distinct improvements on their original versions; you’d be forgiven for wondering if 1999’s dismal Hours… was as good as it seems here. Single mixes are the meat of the rest of Nothing Has Changed too, because the metric for inclusion even on the longest version is, more or less, which songs were some kind of hit. (Although it’s worth noting that a collection of Bowie’s U.S. Top 40 singles would be 10 songs long and end with 1987’s “Day-In Day-Out” and “Never Let Me Down”, neither of which appear here. We do get “The Man Who Sold the World”—which was never a single and didn’t appear on a major Bowie compilation until 1997—and “All the Young Dudes”, a hit for Mott the Hoople whose studio recording Bowie didn’t even release until the mid-90s.)
Nonetheless, there’s some curation going on here. Nothing Has Changed is a version of Bowie’s career in which his circa-1990 hard rock quartet Tin Machine never happened (that’s just fine, actually). Cultural currency and UK chart success are no guarantee of inclusion: there’s no “D.J.”, no “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, no “Suffragette City”, no “John, I’m Only Dancing”, no “Queen Bitch”, and don’t even ask about “The Laughing Gnome”. Undignified moments like the Labyrinth soundtrack and “Real Cool World” have been expunged from this particular record (although somehow “Dancing in the Street” wasn’t—the musicless version of that one is preferable.). The “Berlin trilogy” of albums is represented by one quick blast apiece (“Boys Keep Swinging” into “‘Heroes'” into “Sound and Vision”, shoulder to shoulder in glory). But its swift, forceful backward flow through Bowie’s waves of reinvention and discovery is worth more than any kind of completeness would be.
What the 3xCD museum tour of Nothing offers instead is a treat in its final chamber. It keeps on zooming past “Space Oddity” to Bowie’s juvenilia, the five years’ worth of grasps at the brass ring that preceded Major Tom’s rocket to the stars. (David Bowie Is, the actual museum show, also includes his youthful presentiments of what would come later.) Here, again, the reverse chronology works marvelously. “Silly Boy Blue” anticipates the voice we’ve been hearing all the way from “Sue” on back; “Liza Jane” (the recorded debut of “Davie Jones”) and “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” are the work of a teenager learning to play a more complicated version of dress-up. And “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”, the first single for which he tried on the David Bowie name, becomes a key to the whole exhibition: a beautiful young Narcissus, shedding his identity for the first time, and already looking back on what he’s left behind himself.