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David Bowie’s ‘Brilliant Adventure’ Boxed Set Finds His 1990s Music Aging Much Better Than Expected: Album Review

David Bowie
Courtesy ISO-Parlophone

For the most part, David Bowie’s career can be divided into eras by decade — the ‘60s, when he tried almost anything to make it (Mod-pop, Buddhism, folksinging) and mostly failed; the ‘70s, when he released some of the most exciting and innovative albums in music history; the ‘80s, when he got a taste of platinum success with “Let’s Dance” and lost his muse; and the period encapsulated in the latest career-spanning boxed set, “Brilliant Adventure: 1992-2001” — when he got at least some of it back.

It’s likely that even Bowie would agree that he spent the latter half of the ‘80s flailing in search of inspiration, bounding from the garish pop excess of “Never Let Me Down” to his bizarre, Pixies-inspired take on an indie-rock band, the much-lambasted Tin Machine (whose albums his estate seems to have left for a later retrospective). And although many of his moves in the period covered here seemed just as cynical at the time — a series of seemingly random image changes and musical bandwagon-jumping onto to whatever musical trend was hot at the time, from industrial rock to drum n’ bass — the songs on these albums have aged much better than it seemed they would at the time.

And although you won’t find an overlooked “Life on Mars?” or “The Man Who Sold the World” here, it’s still Bowie, challenging himself again after those years in the wilderness, with the familiar haunting refrains, the unusual chord changes, the verses in Cockney accent, the Syd Barrett and Ray Davies-esque melodies, and most of all his still-stunning voice. Nearly all of the albums here have at least glimpses of that greatness and a couple of killer songs or moments. Perhaps not coincidentally, he married Iman Abdulmajid at the beginning of this era; she would be his partner for the rest of his life and presumably played no small role in reviving his creativity as well.

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Courtesy ISO-Parlophone

This set begins with 1992’s “Black Tie White Noise,” Bowie’s last stab at another “Let’s Dance”-sized hit. He reunited with that album’s producer, Chic maestro Nile Rodgers, but didn’t approach its success and it’s not hard to see why: It sounds badly dated, with lots of big drum sounds and little songwriting inspiration. It actually belongs more to the previous era than Bowie’s ’90s, which really begin with…

His next act, where the man made the most welcome musical move longtime fans could have hoped for: reuniting with Brian Eno, with whom he made some of his most visionary work during the late 1970s. While the ensuing album, “Outside,” was far too high on concept and low on melody, it did bring him back into an adventurous place (although “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” is a thinly veiled rewrite of Jane’s Addiction’s “Obvious”).

The songwriting muse returned with “Earthling,” and shines through the of-the-moment industrial and drum n’ bass sounds. It includes some of the best and most Bowie-esque songs he wrote during this era, including “Little Wonder,” “Battle for Britain,” “Telling Lies” and even the Nine Inch Nails knockoff “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The following album, 1999’s relatively straightforward “hours…,” finds him dropping the trend-hopping and not trying to be quite so edgy — he’d just turned 50, after all. It has a dream theme and features nearly as many inspired songs as its predecessor, particularly “Thursday’s Child,” the rocking “Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” and especially “Seven.”

And with that, Bowie closed out the century, although the bonus material here continues up to 2001. The rest of the set includes relatively inessential albums like his 1993 soundtrack to the film version of Hanif Kureishi’s “Buddha of Suburbia,” a sprawling 20-song live BBC set from 2000, an outtakes collection — and, by far most interesting, the long-lost “Toy” album, which consists of newly recorded versions of songs from very early in his career, mostly from that first era, the mid-1960s.

Recorded live in the studio in 2000 and 2001, “Toy” is simultaneously fascinating and at times ridiculous, and it’s not hard to understand why he didn’t release it at the time: He’s a 53-year-old singing songs he wrote as a very young man like “Karma Man” and “Silly Boy Blue” (the latter of which sounds even more like Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” here than it did on the original).

In fact, he and his ace band make many of the songs sound better than they actually are, stripped of the basic or fussy arrangements of the originals and his more-naïve vocal delivery of the time. That can be a double-edged sword: “The London Boys,” a mod-era anthem that is one of Bowie’s best early songs, loses its air of menace and disillusionment in his relatively straightforward vocal here; likewise, “Shadow Man,” a “Ziggy Stardust”-era outtake, gets a lush ballad treatment that clouds up the original’s charming lilt. The highlight of the set is a romp through his second-ever single, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.” Originally recorded when he was just 17, he and the band blaze through the song joyfully, driven by a chiming electric 12-string and powerhouse drumming; it was a highlight of his concerts at the time.

It should be noted that most of the material here was recorded with one of the best bands of Bowie’s career, which featured a core of bassist-singer Gail Ann Dorsey, keyboardist Mike Garson, guitarists Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati and drummers Sterling Campbell or Zachary Alford.

Bowie would continue on this track for another three years, releasing two more albums and gigging regularly, until he suffered a minor heart attack onstage in June of 2004 toward the end of a 100-plus-date world tour and effectively retired. From then, he lived a low-profile life with his family in New York until his death from cancer in 2016, releasing just two more albums and making very rare onstage appearances. Apparently, he also spent no small amount of time curating his archive, judging by the “David Bowie Is” museum exhibit and the large number of archival releases that have been thoughtfully rolled out by his estate over the past few years. His final era will probably be the subject of the next boxed set — and as the 50th anniversaries of his stunning 1970s albums approaches, who knows what else is in store?

BLACK TIE WHITE NOISEThe WeddingYou’ve Been Around    I Feel FreeBlack Tie White Noise (featuring Al B. Sure!)Jump They Say  Nite Flights Pallas Athena  Miracle Goodnight  Don’t Let Me Down & DownLooking for Lester  I Know It’s Gonna Happen SomedayThe Wedding Song THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIABuddha of SuburbiaSex and the ChurchSouth HorizonThe MysteriesBleed Like a Craze, DadStrangers When We MeetDead Against ItUntitled No. 1Ian Fish, U.K. HeirBuddha of Suburbia (featuring Lenny Kravitz on guitar)1.OUTSIDELeon Takes Us OutsideOutsideThe Hearts Filthy Lesson  A Small Plot of Land  Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)” (segue)Hallo SpaceboyThe Motel I Have Not Been to Oxford TownNo Control Algeria Touchshriek (segue)  The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)Ramona A. Stone/I Am with Name (segue)Wishful Beginnings We Prick You Nathan Adler (segue)  I’m Deranged Thru’ These Architects Eyes  Nathan Adler (segue)  Strangers When We MeetEARTHLINGLittle Wonder  Looking for Satellites    Battle for Britain (The Letter) Seven Years in Tibet  Dead Man Walking Telling Lies The Last Thing You Should DoI’m Afraid of Americans  Law (Earthlings on Fire)‘hours…’Thursday’s Child Something in the Air  Survive If I’m Dreaming My Life  Seven What’s Really Happening?  The Pretty Things Are Going to HellNew Angels of PromiseBrilliant Adventure The DreamersBBC RADIO THEATRE, LONDON, JUNE 27, 2000 2xCDCD1Wild Is the WindAshes to AshesSevenThis Is Not AmericaAbsolute BeginnersAlways Crashing in the Same CarSurviveThe London BoysI Dig EverythingLittle WonderCD2The Man Who Sold the WorldFameStayHallo SpaceboyCracked ActorI’m Afraid of AmericansAll the Young DudesStarman“Heroes”Let’s DanceTOYI Dig Everything You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving The London Boys Karma Man Conversation Piece Shadow Man Let Me Sleep Beside You Hole In The Ground Baby Loves That Way Can’t Help Thinking About Me Silly Boy Blue Toy (Your Turn To Drive)  RE:CALL 5 3xCDCD1Real Cool World (Sounds From The Cool World Soundtrack Version)Jump They Say (7” version)Lucy Can’t DanceBlack Tie White Noise (feat Al B. Sure!) (Radio Edit)Don’t Let Me Down & Down (Indonesian Vocal Version) Buddha Of Suburbia (Single Version) (featuring Lenny Kravitz on guitar)The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Radio Edit)Nothing To Be DesiredStrangers When We Meet (edit)Get RealThe Man Who Sold The World (Live Eno Mix)I’m Afraid Of Americans (Showgirls Soundtrack Version) Hallo Spaceboy (Remix)I Am With Name (Alternative Version)A Small Plot Of Land (Long Basquiat Soundtrack Version)CD2Little Wonder (Edit)A Fleeting Moment (aka Severn Years In Tibet – Mandarin Version)Dead Man Walking (Edit)Seven Years In Tibet (Edit)Planet Of Dreams – David Bowie and Gail Ann DorseyI’m Afraid Of Americans (V1 – Edit)I Can’t Read (The Ice Storm Long Version)A Foggy Day In London Town – David Bowie and Angelo BadalamentiFun (BowieNet Mix)The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (Stigmata Soundtrack Version)Thursday’s Child (Radio Edit)We All Go ThroughNo One CallsCD3We Shall Go To Town1917The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (Edit)Thursday’s Child (Omikron: The Nomad Soul Version)New Angels Of Promise (Omikron: The Nomad Soul Version)The Dreamers (Omikron: The Nomad Soul Version)Seven (Demo)Survive (Marius De Vries mix)Something In The Air (American Psycho Remix) Seven (Marius De Vries Mix)Pictures Of Lily