Loving the Alien [1983-1988]

David Bowie

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Loving the Alien [1983-1988] Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

The fourth in a series of comprehensive box sets chronicling David Bowie's entire career: Loving the Alien (1983-1988) covers a period that found Bowie at a popular peak yet somewhat creatively adrift. Once Let's Dance went supernova in 1983, as it was designed to do, Bowie's productivity slowed to a crawl: he knocked out the sequel, Tonight, in a year, then took three to deliver Never Let Me Down. By the end of the decade, he rediscovered his muse via the guitar skronk of Tin Machine, but Loving the Alien cuts off with Never Let Me Down, presented both in its original version and in a new incarnation containing tasteful instrumentation recorded in the wake of Bowie's death. Spearheaded by producer Mario J. McNulty, this revision of Never Let Me Down had been brewing in Bowie's mind for some time -- McNulty pegs it to his 2008 remix of "Time Will Crawl," guitarist Reeves Gabrels maintains Bowie discussed re-recording songs as early as the album's supporting Glass Spider tour -- so its existence isn't exactly sacrilege, even if it's not exactly a success, either. The new Never Let Me Down is neither fish nor fowl: it's not radical enough to be a reimagined record -- its core remains the same -- and without its ornamental period feel, it seems trapped out of time. The same can't be said of the rest of Loving the Alien, which goes overboard on period charm. Alongside remastered versions of the three main records and the new Never Let Me Down, there are two live albums sourced that mirror home videos -- Serious Moonlight (Live 1983) and Glass Spider -- the fourth installment of Re:Call, which gathers stray songs and non-LP singles and Dance, a two-disc collection of remixes that was originally planned for a 1985 release but scrapped. Each of these records are filled with bright, clanging, pastel colors and clean, sharp edges -- the aesthetic of MTV, which Bowie helped define with Let's Dance. Once his gambit for superstardom worked, he experienced a brief creative paralysis. He made a handful of classic songs in the mid-'80s, but it's telling that apart from "Blue Jean," the single that greatly outshone its parent album Tonight, these were non-LP singles: "Absolute Beginners" and "This Is Not America" found him exploring avenues his hit-hungry albums wouldn't allow. The fascinating thing about Loving the Alien is how it makes this period seem more interesting than the individual albums, and that's entirely due to the dance mixes, ephemera, and awkward live material. On these byways, it's possible to hear Bowie grapple with both his past and present in a hungry fashion and that desperation is alien to Bowie, so an immersion into this unease makes for compelling listening.

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