Album Review: David Bowie - A New Career in A New Town
I’ve been putting this one off for a while now, for a number of reasons—one of which is that it’s hard writing about David Bowie, especially after I still feel kind of weird/bad writing a somewhat shitty review of Blackstar, then having to write a memorial thing about him, like 48 hours later, then spending all of 2016 trying to come around on Blackstar, and put it on my ‘year end list’ because I felt like it was the right thing to do.
The second reason is that this thing is intimidating—clocking in at a whopping 113 tracks, A New Career in A New Town collects studio albums, a live album, and all kinds of additional ephemera from the period of time between 1977 and 1982.
The third is because I’m not as, like, excited or interested in this collection as I was prior to its release, and here’s why: A New Career in A New Town is the third in an ongoing reissue campaign that was launched shortly before Bowie died. I ignored the first one, released in 2015, and I only listened to his ‘lost’ album, The Gouster, which was part of the second one from last year.
When A New Career was announced, was like “Oh shit, I’ll for sure buy this one because it has ‘The Berlin Trilogy.’” But the vinyl reissue set is, like, around $200 and I don’t have nearly as much disposable income as I once did in my young life and my wife’s been talking with a financial advisor recently to make sure we can, you know, eventually afford to retire and maybe I should take the hint and stop buying so much dumb expensive shit, like massive vinyl reissues.
I was on the verge of telling my mother it was what I wanted for Christmas, when I started reading a couple of articles on Super Deluxe Edition about people who were unhappy with a number of aspects with the set—including the mixing issues with both Low and Lodger, and more importantly, a real, tangible audio issue with the song “Heroes.”
I mean, of all the songs on this thing, that’s the one you, like, don’t want to fuck up.
A New Career in A New Town is, if anything, exhaustive, like any $200 reissue should be. And please keep in mind I am only going off of the mp3s right now—at this point, I’m probably not comfortable purchasing this thing with either my own money, or that of a blood relative. Collecting material from the iconic and often mythologized portion of Bowie’s late 70s career, the set contains Low, “Heroes,” Lodger, and Scary Monsters, along with Stage (a live album, also presented here in two iterations), along with various single edits, and miscellany from this period.
At first glance, a lot of this seems like overkill—or at least, overwhelming to the listener. Where do you start, you know? Why do you need two remasters of Lodger? Why do you need two versions of Stage—one sequenced the way it was when it was originally issued in 1978, and then another that reshuffles the deck into the order of the 2005 reissue, plus three additional songs that were previously unreleased.
This period of time is a fascinating one for David Bowie—releasing both Low and “Heroes” in 1977, he took 1978 off, coming back with Lodger the following year. He was also living on a diet of mostly cocaine and milk, losing his mind but trying to clean up as best he could, hanging out with Iggy Pop, and initially, suffering from a bout of writer’s block—most noticeable on Low because of how many fucking instrumentals there are on it. I mean, some of them are pretty good—the ones that are structured like pop songs are good; the self-indulgent, weird ones on the b-side are maybe not as good. But I guess, according to lore, the band would write and record the music, and Bowie would step up to the microphone to try to sing, and nothing would happen.
Referred to as “The Berlin Trilogy,” that expression is kind of misleading, in truth. “Heroes” is the only album to be recorded, in full, in Berlin. Low was recorded partially in Switzerland, with “Subterraneans” recorded in Los Angeles two years prior; Lodger was recorded in New York and, again, in Switzerland (it was also the poorest received of the three.)
It’s also worth noting that while Brian Eno’s name is nearly synonymous with all three records, he didn’t produce them or anything—that task when to longtime collaborator Tony Visconti. Eno was simply just in the studio, helping shape things at times with his Oblique Strategies card deck and vast array of synthesizers and electronics. He’s credited as a co-writer on “DJ,” on four tracks (two of them instrumentals) on “Heroes,” and one on Low, which is, by far, the least accessible of the three because of how seriously it takes itself.
Scary Monsters really has nothing to do with any of these albums—recorded in New York and London, released in 1980, it’s the album that marks a shift for Bowie—the last thing before a three year break prior to Let’s Dance, and is often used as a critical placeholder—i.e. “___________ is his best since Scary Monsters.”
So, like nearly every reissue and remaster, to really get a firm grasp on the difference between the editions of the albums found in A New Career in comparison to the versions of these albums you already own (in my case, it’s the 1999 EMI/Virgin CD reissues, plus a second hand copy of “Heroes” on vinyl) you need to listen to this thing with headphones—yeah, even using the mp3s I illegally (sorry, not sorry) downloaded and are taking up a massive amount of space on our computer. Yes, even using a cheap pair of ear buds or whatever, you can still get a feeling for what has been changed. Maybe, if you’re some kind of real Bowie aficionado and scholar, you could tell just by playing the CDs or LPs, but the closer you are to the music, the deeper you are in the space, the more you can tell what has been updated.
I don’t want to write this off and say, “Oh, they just made it louder,” because there was probably slightly more attention to detail than that—but to the passing David Bowie fan, or even to the casual David Bowie fan, they aren’t going to be astounded by the these remasters when compared to what they already know and are familiar with. In some cases, the differences are subtle—Low, for example, you can tell there’s a little more richness and depth in the layers, but it’s not, like, hearing the album again for the first time, or something, you know? Juxtaposed to the mind blowing Purple Rain remaster from earlier this summer, as well as the work done to redevelop OK Computer for OKNOTOK, A New Career, unfortunately, pales in comparison.
Who is the intended audience for A New Career in A New Town? I suppose the David Bowie completest—someone who already owns all of this, or at least a bulk of it, but needs to have it all. They need to have the French and German versions of “Heroes” (presented here in both radio edits as well as the full length versions); they need to have TWO versions of Stage—with no real discernable differences between the two when it comes to the mixing; they need TWO versions of Lodger—one of which is mixed by Tony Visconti, and has received complaints about being too heavy on the bass—though when you do compare the 2017 remaster with the Visconti remix, Visconti’s take on the album has way more depth to it.
These completests also need the Baal EP, an 11 minute suite of songs written for Bertolt Brecht’s play of the same name—the kind of throwaway record that you find in used record shops because nobody really wants this; nobody is going to sit down and seriously listen to this.
Despite how excessive and flawed A New Career is, there are still amazing moments that are worth revisiting—even with slight tape hiss you hear as it begins, Low’s closing track, “Suberraneans” is still a very unnerving way to conclude that record, and one of Bowie’s most thought provoking instrumental experiments from this time period; even with the damaged master tape to “Heroes”—the audio cuts out and the volume lowers dramatically around the 2:50 mark—the remaster does flush out some of the various noises that drift throughout the song, providing additional depth to one of Bowie’s most powerful songs; and even though it, as a whole, has been criticized for being too bass heavy, the Visconti remix of “Fantastic Voyage” on Lodger breathes new life into my personal favorite Bowie song.
Also, “Under Pressure,” Bowie’s iconic one-off collaboration with Queen, still slays, and still gives me chills.
All reissues are, at their core, cash grabs, and even though this career spanning campaign began before Bowie’s death, the hefty price tag and obvious quality control problems that come along A New Career in A New Town give it a somewhat disingenuous feeling. If you’re a longtime Bowie fan who is literally made out of money and loves having more things in your home—and don’t care about the final product’s quality, by all means, add this to your collection.
For the rest of us, continue remembering David Bowie in your own way, and continue listening to what you already own.