Pitchfork NOVEMBER 28, 2007 - by Joshua Klein


Since the 1990s, David Bowie has been in the worst kind of rut. It's not that his output has been substandard - each of his recent albums has had its share of pleasures. The problem is that by and large his output has been just good enough. As a result, nearly each of his releases from the past two decades have earned the usual "best album since..." reviews, and Bowie did admittedly sound more engaged than he had for most of the '80s (a decade he himself has since mostly written off). But considering that virtually everything Bowie recorded between 1970 and 1980 became more or less canonised, it's a bit of a legacy risk to re-release his most recent slate of CDs as a boxed set, with each album expanded to double-disc sets containing a mostly negligible collection of catalogue detritus. It calls attention to the very albums that refurbished Bowie's iconic status, but outside of that big picture context it's a bit of a rocky ride.

Following the Tin Machine debacle, Bowie eased back into his own name again. The tentative Black Tie White Noise captured Bowie at perhaps less than the peak of his powers but certainly working hard to regain them, and that's what made Bowie's first bona-fide '90s comeback, 1995's Outside, such a bummer. On one hand, it was filled with such familiar collaborators aspiano player Mike Garson and Brian Eno, who hadn't worked with Bowie since the famed "Berlin" trilogy of Low, "Heroes", and Lodger. On the other, the album was borderline unlistenable, marred by an ill-conceived concept and too many indulgent detours.

Outside nonetheless contains some of Bowie's most exciting songs, vigourous attempts like The Hearts Filthy Lesson and Hallo Spaceboy to ingratiate himself to a new generation of potential listeners (a strategy extended to a joint tour with Nine Inch Nails). Indeed, Trent Reznor contributes one of the many remixes of The Hearts Filthy Lesson now amended to the album, though the Pet Shop Boys' version of Hallo Spaceboy is not among that song's quartet of remixes represented. The formerly Japan-only Get Real is unexceptional. A jungle mix of I'm Deranged, on the other hand, telegraphs Bowie's next move.

With 1997's Earthling, Bowie made the firm transition from leader to follower, borrowing bits of drum'n'bass to lend his songs some contemporary cred. At the very least, the second disc shows songs such as Little Wonder, Seven Years In Tibet, Dead Man Walking, Telling Lies, and I'm Afraid Of Americans are remix-friendly, with new best buddies Reznor and Moby handling several of the new editions. But versions of Pallas Athena (from Black Tie White Noise) and V-2 Schneider, recorded under Bowie's alter ego Tao Jones Index, are still mostly lame.

After Earthling Bowie again changed directions, this time resulting in the much mellower Hours... Sprouting from sessions meant for the forgotten video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, bits of Hours... found Bowie, the chameleon, looking backwards for once, and the hardcore fans - i.e., anyone still paying attention - recognised glimmers of the man's golden era amidst the relative mediocrity. Original versions of Thursday's Child, New Angels Of Promise, and The Dreamers, from the video game, crop up on disc two, as well as a couple of fun remixes of Seven from Beck and versions of Hours... songs that were plopped on movie soundtracks like Stigmata.

Perhaps buoyed by the disc's respectable reception, Bowie reunited with producer Tony Visconti (who had worked with Bowie off and on since 1970, and who produced many of his best records) for the well-liked Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003), albums which seemed in part efforts to raze the recent past and return to his arty (and better adored) heyday. The records are steeped both in nostalgia and thoroughly modern post-9/11 paranoid, tough covers of songs from the likes of The Pixies, Neil Young, Jonathan Richman, and George Harrison among their highlights.

The extra disc of Heathen features remixes from Moby (again) and Air (who do a good job spacing up A Better Future), but most curiously the bonus platter includes new versions of mid-'60s songs Baby Loves That Way and You've Got A Habit Of Leaving, as well as Shadow Man (written circa Aladdin Sane). The extra disc of Reality now includes a cover of Waterloo Sunset, plus gets a totally pointless new version of Rebel Rebel and three even more unnecessary remixes of the same. But they're almost worth it to get the wonderfully silly Sigue Sigue Sputnik cover Love Missile F1-11 (which should warm the cockles of Ferris Bueller's Day Off fans).

Taken as an uneven whole, the generically titled David Bowie Box serves as an unnecessary reminder that for much of the past ten years, Bowie seemed to be tossing things out to see what sticks. Yet by the time Bowie toured behind Reality (before open heart surgery halted his comeback) the scattershot gambit appeared to have worked. In the time since, Bowie has recharged his cultural currency, plying elder statesmen to such acolytes as Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio. Both of which, by the way, would be lying through their respectful teeth if they said they ever put on any of the discs in this box for pleasure.