David Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien': Album Review
The fourth David Bowie box set in as many years has a lot to live up to.
Then again, many artists have a lot to live up to when you're talking about Bowie's 1969-1982 period, the years covered earlier. But he made so much great music during that time that box number four, Loving the Alien (1983–1988) -- which collects five studio and live albums recorded in the '80s, a new version of 1987's Never Let Me Down and two new compilations of rarities and remixes on 11 CDs -- can seem like a letdown on the surface.
But dig deeper now that we're more than a quarter century removed from the decade, and Bowie's '80s material takes on more resonance than it did at the time.
That's not to say it all works; it doesn't. But albums that were dismissed and ignored back then almost sound like the essential links to Bowie's better received '90s material and his total creative resurgence in the years leading up to his 2016 death.
Framed within the context of Loving the Alien, records like Never Let Me Down and Tonight (from 1984) come off a little better than they did after they followed the hit Let's Dance, which gave Bowie his second and final No. 1 single with the title song.
That 1983 album remains the highlight of the era, and it's still the best thing to be found on this box. Reinvigorated with a dance-ready pop glow (provided by producer Nile Rodgers) and stinging guitar work (by a young Stevie Ray Vaughan), Bowie crashed the MTV era with his most radio-friendly set of songs in almost a decade and was rewarded with his highest-charting LP in seven years.
He kept up the pace with his next two studio records, neither of which sold as well or received particularly good reviews. Time has been a bit kinder to the albums, especially Never Let Me Down, which gets a redo on Loving the Alien with new backing tracks by some of Bowie's frequent collaborators over the years, including Blackstar bassist Tim Lefebvre and onetime Tin Machine bandmate Reeves Gabrels.
The original version of the album is here too, as are two double-disc concert records from the decade -- Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87) and the previously unreleased Serious Moonlight (Live ’83) -- that include such earlier favorites as "Young Americans," "Rebel Rebel" and "Life on Mars?"
The live sets offer another view of the era, but the new Dance and Re:Call 4 sets reveal where Bowie's real interests were at the time. Collecting various 12-inch and extended mixes, soundtrack numbers and single versions, the more than three dozen tracks compiled here are among Bowie's most diverse during his long career. They're never as good as the rarities gathered on the three previous boxes -- Five Years, Who Can I Be Now? and A New Career in a New Town -- but they sound much more of their time, which admittedly may not be the best representation of an artist as timeless as Bowie.
Still, there's no denying the appeal of some of the material -- Tonight's "Loving the Alien" and "Blue Jean," Never Let Me Down's "Time Will Crawl," the soundtrack cuts "This Is Not America" and "Absolute Beginners," almost all of Let's Dance. Even at his most creatively spent (despite riding a commercial high), Bowie never checked out. Loving the Alien reassesses the era and discovers the gems that might have otherwise slipped away.
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