Tracing Time: David Bowie Complicated The Compilation.

David Bowie made a return to Earth at the start of 2013, on his birthday no less, with the announcement of his new full-length, The Next Day. Later in the year he released a bonus EP with yet more music, including a ten minute dance remix of one of the album’s less notable tracks. The compilation Nothing Has Changed came a year later partnered with a vinyl release of a new song, a seven minute jazz odyssey about domestic abuse, with a B-side titled ‘Tis Is A Pity She’s A Whore. What was Nothing Has Changed then, but much needed affirmation that yes, everything is still okay: this is still the same David Bowie who danced in the street with Mick Jagger, stormed America with Fame and glammed up as Jean Genie.

And which manner of new release could be more comforting than that of the compilation? The most reliable of mediums, featuring all the hits with the boring bits banished to recycle bin perpetuity. Just the headlines, the column inches exonerated. Except this was David Bowie, one of the most curious and consistently enigmatic figures in the history of popular music, and Nothing Has Changed held no solace for the fly-by listener. For a start it doesn’t even have all of his greatest hits. For second, it’s structured in reverse chronological order, starting with said previously unheard seven minute jazz cut and ending with his obscure first single under the name of Davey Jones in 1964.

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Some of the hits that made it aren’t the originals, or even radio cuts – they’re obscure 21st century remixes of 70’s classics. Some of Bowie’s chosen career highlights even include discards from his scrapped and as-of-yet unreleased 2001 album Toy. To find a song that is recognisable, the causal Bowie listener (or even those quite well versed in the mainstays of his catalogue), will have to wait until halfway through the second CD. This was not a standard compilation; in fact it could even be treated as an original release – partly because a lot of the music here will be new to the majority, but also because of is the sheer originality of its conceit, a 242 minute statement about… Something. So just what was he playing at?

This isn’t the first time Bowie has exerted significant editorial control over his own compilations. In 2008 he released an album titled iSelect whose whole USP was that Bowie himself had has chosen its content and, shockingly, they were not the traditional favourites. Nothing Has Changed however is an entirely different beast. Its title seemed to comment on his career and legacy as much as offer a different presentation of it. The packaging of the album for example sees three separate pictures of the man, one from the seventies, one from the early nineties and another contemporary picture, each showing Bowie staring into the mirror. This is a man confronting his legacy, and rejecting it. But the question must be asked… what exactly is wrong with his legacy?

Yes he fell out of public favour for a couple of decades, but why do this in 2014 – having undergone something of a renaissance, with music back in the Top 10 for the first time since 1987 – and a new album to finally regain his once stalled critical and commercial acclaim? Perhaps Bowie was seizing on the opportunity to shine a light on what he considered overlooked hits, perhaps he felt the older classics already had all their due coverage and spoke for themselves. A cynical view would be that it was an exploitation of opportunity. Bowie made a fast return to cultural prominence, and was at last able to make money from those albums which were commercial flops. Such a decision would be bad business though – bands like Genesis in the same year proved, with the (painfully titled) R-Kive, that reheated Greatest Hits albums featuring all the predictable favourites can still shift vast quantities. Nothing Has Changed, with its unreleased obscurities, faired much worse in the charts, at least while he was alive. Basically a concept album: its very existence is a statement. Its title literally is one. It’s art pop Lady Gaga can only aspire to.

Yet unlike the title of this compilation, much of Bowie’s recent cultural presence had revelled in ambiguity. The recent documentary film on the Victoria and Albert museum’s David Bowie exhibition was titled simply: “David Bowie Is…” Such ellipsis-marked invitations only draw attention to the far starker reality that, for all the history surrounding the name, David Bowie is not even called David Bowie: he is David Jones, a boy from Brixton in London, not the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust – just a man with the most common surname going, and one potentially rounding off the most dedicated performance art projects of the 20th century.

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He has played with many characters in his time, and was now moulding and refiguring his original creation: that of the musician David Bowie. On the cover of The Next Day he obscured perhaps his most famous photograph, the Heroes artwork, with a large white box emblazoned with the album title, stomping all over his untouchable past. In music videos for Where Are We Now and the Love Is Lost Remix, Bowie’s singing face is projected onto figurines with faces constructed literally from a blank canvas. Bowie didn’t give interviews anymore – the only photographs we saw of him were personally approved and uploaded infrequently to his website. Just like those blank canvases, our perception of him since 2013 was provided by music alone, and the image of his legacy was entirely in our hands, for which he would only provide further ambiguity. In the year when a David Bowie exhibition toured the world and, in Chicago, September 23rd was declared a national holiday in his name, perhaps David Jones found himself with a legacy too grandiose and expansive for one Brixton lad to carry alone, and this was him handing over the reins to the collective imagination.

Little can be seen as more of a statement then than the compilation’s brand new song: Sue (or In A Season Of Crime), which would later appear in fired-up form on swansong Blackstar. For an album containing the body of work this one does, the fact he put the song front and centre was a bold move. It lives up to the challenge though, first and foremost because it’s a marvellous track, but also in its composition. Recorded especially for the compilation with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and produced by long-time friend Tony Visconti, the song is aloof and unstructured, and in doing so captures perfectly this compilations theme of enigma and mystique. No other Bowie song sounded quite like it, and so it makes sense that the syncopated drum patterns and noir saxophone drags which so well set the tone had to be manufactured especially. Sounding like a free-jazz Scott Walker, time seemed to have done only favours for Bowie’s voice, and he drifts like another instrument amongst the erratic composition.

Journeying from that starting point through such a vast array of music, arriving at simple rock ‘n’ roll through minimalist kraut rock and industrial funk, from drum and bass to disco riffs and piano balladry: Nothing Has Changed served as testament to Bowie’s unmatched penchant for change and reinvention; making him a true cultural chameleon who innovated and assimilated in equal measure. On the other hand, despite all the bafflement surrounding it, in a way nothing had changed. His body of work existed as it had untouched for almost a decade by the time The Next Day arrived, and the release of the compilation was just an epithet to that. It added just one new song and a B-side to the collection, all it did was invite us to think deeper about the work, and the iconography of the man who orchestrated all of its wondrous music and, yes, changes. In a way it was just a retired guy waving his hands and reminding us not to forget him, revisiting a catalogue on our behalf without having to add much to it. On the other hand it opens a door often left unopened or shied away from by well established artists, a unique chance to review the legacy of an international cultural icon, and the place of such a person as part of a wider lexicon.

Accordingly the three songs off his penultimate full-length that appear all comment on image of celebrity or Bowie’s own history. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) alienates them and their paradoxes. The line “we may never been rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever” both bemoans their endless ubiquity but also, crucially, bows down to their legacy. The Love Is Lost Remix (by James Murphy, no stranger to this sort of meta-musicality) plunges into the naïve depths of a bright eyed youth ruined by a lifetime of fame. “You’re 22” the song begins, the age of Bowie when he released Nothing Has Changed’s closing track. Murphy twists Bowie’s lyrics inward and at the half way point the iconic Ashes to Ashes baseline emerges from the haze; reassigned to this more uncertain setting 34 years down the line (ironically the track from Scary Monsters similarly stomped all over his own legacy by making Major Tom, the wide eyed explorer of his break out track Space Oddity from 11 years earlier, a junkie). The music video for the remixed track shows a wooden-doll effigy of his Thin White Duke persona cradling another dressed as the Scary Monsters clown, frozen and leering out at the viewer. “What have you done!?” Bowie wails a dozen times on the track.

The following song Where Are We Now likewise provides queries whose answers are somehow entirely nebulous and yet presented to us as a series of statements of certainty. The song asks uncertain questions just like the whole compilation did – answering a series of questions with “the moment you know you know you know.” It’s as ambiguous as the question, but said with such raw emotion that it’s a comforting place to lean on: allowing us the chance to find our own answers, given the commodity of time. Time is exactly what Nothing Has Changed charts, and Bowie’s presentation of his music is an open invitation to decide if we agree. As for the music itself: for those who have been tentatively and unconvincingly proclaiming every album since his 80’s flops to be a ‘return to form’, well in 2014, Bowie was at last truly as original and exhilarating an artist as he was in his prime.

Then, in January 2016, came Blackstar – and it made the rejigging of his catalogue look like child’s play in comparison. It’s a shame that the record, one of his finest albums released two days before his death, will only be considered now in the context of his passing. It’s true that its songs did seem to anticipate the event, the song Dollar Days with its line “if I never see the English evergreen’s I’m running too”, and the music video for Lazarus seeming less prophetic and more something close to foreshadowing. The transformation of his limited mortality into in a blurring of the lines between artistry and reality was both brave and chilling, but to read the whole album as a dirge seems too eager to enforce upon it something that isn’t there. Songs on the album like Girl Loves Me which is partially written in Nasdaq, or Sue and ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore which deal in more domestic conflicts, don’t play into the reading at all. As with The Next Day, and Nothing Has Changed, its greatest concept is a continuing dialogue with his own legacy.

Blackstar and Lazarus both deal in the world of mythos, and in the cultish worship of heroes. The marvellous music video for the former opens with the Starman who started Bowie’s ascent to stardom, laying broken a lunar floor, and the closing song, surely his final word as many critics would have it, deals not with his mortal life, but with his attitude to art. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” goes his mantra – and he never did. Its why this article exists, and it’s why the outpouring of grief upon the news of his death was massive and ubiquitous: the distance put between himself and his work created an icon, and a hero to worship. It’s why his compilations like Nothing Has Changed are not trivial affairs as they are for most artists: they give him a platform to re-write his own history. It’s no surprise that shortly after his death it was announced that he had prepared a series of anthology releases arranged by era to be released posthumously, starting in 2017. I’ll await those records with bated breath, for they should be fascinating: the final draft of a project fifty years in the making. They shan’t diminish the rewrites that have come before it though, which gave Bowie the unique ability to shape his own legacy out of work produced before it was even certain he’d have one at all.

Theodore J. Inscoe.

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