Home Read David Bowie | Loving the Alien (1983–1988)

David Bowie | Loving the Alien (1983–1988)

The fourth Bowie box set revisits his biggest triumph — and his biggest failure.

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Everybody was in love with David Bowie in the mid-’80s. Thanks to the global domination of Let’s Dance and its roster of singles — including the title cut, China Girl and Modern LoveThe Thin White Duke enjoyed the most commercially successful period of his career during these years. Yet despite — or perhaps due to that — he also suffered through his greatest artistic failure. Those tumultuous times are the focus of Loving the Alien (1983–1988), the fourth instalment in the exhaustive career-anthology series that has also included Five Years (1969–1973), Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976), and A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982). Quite rightly, the 11-CD Alien kicks off with a newly remastered version of Let’s Dance, followed by a two-disc live album compiled from the ’83 Serious Moonlight Tour. The lesser 1984 studio release Tonight follows — and then things get really interesting. Because that’s when we come to 1987’s failed Never Let Me Down, a dated, slapdash work that Bowie quickly disowned. Until 2008, that is, when Bowie had Mario J. McNulty remix Time Will Crawl for some compilations. At the time Bowie reportedly said, “Oh, to redo the rest of that album.” So that’s what McNulty and a team of musicians including Reeves Gabrels, David Torn, Sterling Campbell, Tim Lefebvre, Nico Muhly and Laurie Anderson did earlier this year. Retaining Bowie’s vocals, some acoustic guitars and other key elements, they deconstructed and rebuilt many of these songs from the ground up, changing instruments, arrangements and other elements. Some of the revamps are fairly drastic: Glass Spider is retooled into a longer, more ominous affair; Day-In Day-Out restores live horns that were swapped out with synthetic ones; Beat of Your Drum is one of several cuts where synthesizers are replaced with strings; and tunes like Zeroes and Bang Bang are beefed up by having the drums played at cut time (which supposedly prompted the original drummer to threaten a lawsuit). It’s impossible to know what Bowie would have thought of all this, but it would seem safe to assume an artist who spent so much time reinventing himself would have approved. After this, however, the returns start diminishing: There’s another live set recorded in Montreal on 1987’s Glass Spider Tour, a scrapped disc of extended dance-mix singles, and the fourth Re:Call compilation of non-album singles, soundtrack contributions and B-sides from the era. All of which is well and good — but there’s no getting around the fact that the revamped Never Let Me Down is the most exciting and essential portion of Loving the Alien. Cross your fingers for a standalone release.