David Bowie

Conversation Piece

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Conversation Piece effectively amounts to an exhaustive documentation of David Bowie becoming David Bowie over the course of 1968 and 1969. The five-disc box -- which is packaged in a handsome, hefty hardcover book -- collects a series of home demos, many released in a series of limited-edition vinyl box sets over the course of 2019, plus two mixes of David Bowie (aka Space Oddity), the 1969 album that brought him into the public eye. Strictly speaking, there aren't many unheard tracks here. Everything from the Spying Through a Keyhole, Clareville Grove Demos, and The "Mercury" Demos sets are here, along with a brand-new mix of the Space Oddity album by Tony Visconti, one that restores "Conversation Piece" as part of its sequence. Setting aside the new mix of Space Oddity, that leaves 11 tracks out of 75 that are making their debut here, including several that have never been bootlegged and a couple that weren't even known to exist. Chief among these is "Jerusalem," a winding folk tale in the vein of Dylan's "Desolation Row," and the jaunty "Animal Farm," but compressed Pink Floyd-isms of "The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fete on Thatchwick Green)" is pretty charming, too. Still, the selling point of Conversation Piece is its comprehensive context. Here, there's a distinct narrative tying together the early, tentative, solo home demos and his collaborations with John "Hutch" Hutchinson, Bowie's initial recordings with Visconti, his one-off single with the folky Feathers, then finally the Space Oddity album itself. Hearing Bowie sculpt "Space Oddity," both with and without Hutchinson, heightens the appreciation of the craft behind the music. The same can be said of the rest of the songs Bowie toiled over, whether it's the trifle "Ching-A-Ling" or the ornate "An Occasional Dream." Visconti's new mix does sound big and vivid, suitable to the sonic standards of 2019, but he doesn't change the feel of the record, which is the right method considering how thoroughly this set is steeped in the sensibility of 1969. That's it's charm, of course. Instead of treating Bowie as a visionary operating on his own celestial plane, Conversation Piece emphasizes the hard work and thought behind his artistic evolution. Perhaps a fair amount of these numbers are either ephemeral or evocative baubles, but the core songs -- not just the highlights from the album, but "In the Heat of the Morning" and "London Bye, Ta-Ta," are hazy remnants from a fading fever dream of the swinging '60s -- demonstrate how sharp a singer/songwriter Bowie was at this stage. Having such subtle revelations readily available in a CD box set, not a collection of 7" singles, is reason enough for Conversation Piece to exist.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 02:28 Amazon
2 02:17 Amazon
3 03:17 Amazon
4 03:00 Amazon
5 02:59 Amazon
6 03:19 Amazon
7 02:49 Amazon
8 03:30 Amazon
9 02:31 Amazon
10 02:37 Amazon
11 02:22 Amazon
12 02:39 Amazon
13 04:02 Amazon
14 05:01 Amazon
15 05:09 Amazon
16 03:51 Amazon
17 02:58 Amazon
18 02:50 Amazon
19 02:54 Amazon
20 04:50 Amazon
21 03:49 Amazon
22 04:20 Amazon
23 03:29 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 3

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 02:52 Amazon
2 02:36 Amazon
3 03:01 Amazon
4 02:37 Amazon
5 03:07 Amazon
6 03:14 Amazon
7 04:32 Amazon
8 02:51 Amazon
9 04:22 Amazon
10 04:42 Amazon
11 04:54 Amazon
12 03:22 Amazon
13 03:07 Amazon
14 03:20 Amazon
15 04:03 Amazon
16 03:03 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick