Music Review: David Bowie’s ‘A New Career in a New Town’ Box Set

David Bowie's A New Career in a New Town

A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) is the third in a series of gargantuan box sets aimed at fans who don’t want to miss a minute of David Bowie’s recorded output. The first package, Five Years (1969–1973), came out in 2015 and contains 12 CDs; the second, last year’s Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976), documents a shorter period but also features a dozen discs. This latest box adds another 11. That’s a total of 35 discs—and they take us only through the first 14 years of Bowie’s career, with another three and a half decades still to come. Better clear a big space on the shelf.

In any case, make room there for A New Career in a New Town, because while all three of the boxes issued so far are excellent, this latest is the best of the bunch. The package includes all four of Bowie’s studio releases during the period covered, plus two versions of his live Stages album from 1978 and assorted other goodies. Everything in the package has been newly remastered.

Speaking of the remastering, the gripes about it that I’ve seen on Amazon seem way overblown. It’s true that “‘Heroes’”—in which the volume declines a little around 2:50—offers just one of several examples of sonic flaws here. But while such problems are lamentable, particularly in an expensive set aimed at major fans, you’d have to be a fairly serious audiophile to even notice them, and they certainly wouldn’t stop me from buying this. That said, here’s a detailed look at the CDs in this box, which, like its predecessors, comes with a hardcover book packed with reviews, track notes, previously unpublished photos, and production notes:

Low. Ch-ch-changes arrive on this terrific 1977 album, which echoes elements of the previous year’s Station to Station but finds Bowie venturing much further into experimental territory, especially on the four final tracks. The first of three albums now viewed as his Berlin trilogy, it delivers brooding synth-pop soundscapes that are a million miles from the glam and glitter that characterized much of his early work. Keyboardist Brian Eno plays a big role on the record, which makes zero concessions to commercialism and produced no hit singles but sold well, anyway. The CD includes some funky vocal work on tracks like “Be My Wife” and “What in the World” but many of the best moments come in the layered, hypnotic instrumental passages.

“Heroes.” Eno looms even larger on this album, also from 1977, which makes great use of percussion. Numbers like “Sense of Doubt” deliver techno soundscapes that would have fit in on Low, but the star of the show is the knockout title track, whose quotation marks were intended to convey irony. Written by Bowie and Eno, this anthemic number tells of two lovers kissing by the Berlin Wall. It’s not difficult to see why it has become one of Bowie’s most famous and beloved tracks.

“Heroes” E.P. This newly compiled disc collects four rarely heard (at least in the U.S.) versions of “’Heroes’”: one full-length reading is sung in English and German, another in English and French; and two single versions deliver the song entirely in German and French, respectively. These renditions prove to me how well the song holds up even when you don’t understand the lyrics. (In fact, it was conceived originally as an instrumental.)

Stage. The box devotes four of its CDs to Bowie’s likable albeit unessential second live album—two to the original 1978 17-track release and another two to a 22-track 2017 version that features a new mix by Tony Visconti and adds five tracks: Bertolt Brecht’s “Alabama Song” (which the Doors also covered), “Be My Wife” (from Low), “Stay” (from Station to Station), “The Jean Genie” (from Aladdin Sane), and “Suffragette City” (from Ziggy Stardust). These previously unavailable performances are worth having, but the two mixes of the other tracks don’t differ dramatically and the need for both is debatable.

Lodger. This 1979 release fills two CDs, one offering the original record and one with a new mix by Visconti. Again, I question the need for both. As for the music, which finds Bowie veering back toward more commercial material, this is largely great stuff. There are no instrumentals, and tracks like “D.J.” and—especially—the sax-spiced “Boys Keep Swinging” are vibrant and radio-ready.         

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). As I wrote in my original review of this 1980 album: “The opening cut here sounds like a duet by a drugged-out Yoko Ono and a primal-screaming John Lennon, but don’t be fooled. Bowie’s first album of the 80s is not only one of his best works to date but also one of his most accessible. Described by the artist as ‘some psychotic rock and roll by [avant-garde guitarist Robert] Fripp and some quite radical and alarming vocal performances by me,’ the set winningly melds the melodic leanings of early works to the complex textures of Low, ‘Heroes,’ and Lodger. Best cuts include ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ where the star of the vintage ‘Space Oddity’ returns as a junkie and where the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan contributes tasty piano; and ‘Fashion,’ a potent dance number that profits from Bowie’s sense of humor and Fripp’s manic instrumentation.”

Re:Call 3. Like the two earlier Bowie boxes, this one contains a disc filled with single versions of album tracks, non-album singles, and B-sides. Two of Bowie’s most notable collaborations are here, and their disparate styles are a testament to his versatility: the rhythmic “Under Pressure,” which he recorded with Queen; and “Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy,” a charming holiday duet with Bing Crosby (that, here, includes a smile-inducing pre-song dialogue). Among the other contents: single versions of “Ashes to Ashes,” “D.J.,” “Fashion,” and “Heroes”; an extended performance of “Beauty and the Beast”; a 1979 reading of “Space Oddity,” and an Australian single version of “Breaking Glass.”

Add it all up and you have more than seven hours of music from one of Bowie’s most adventurous eras. This is a guy who knew how to deliver hits and who made some great ones from time to time but who was clearly more concerned with following his muse and exploring fresh territory than in sticking with a formula that paid cash dividends, though he got those, anyway. You have to admire his courage, and also his musical instincts.

David Bowie's A New Career in a New Town box set contents

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