David Bowie: Toy review – 1960s gems polished on lost album

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David Bowie began the 90s by rashly announcing that he would never play his greatest hits again. Fans could vote for their favourites via a phone line, the setlist for his upcoming tour would be based on the results, and then that would be that. “By the time I’m in my late 40s, I will have built up a whole new repertoire,” he bullishly announced.

As everyone knows, it didn’t work out like that. In fact, Bowie spent a lot of the ensuing decade dealing in an intriguing brand of self-referentiality, as evidenced by Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001), the fifth multi-album box set in a series covering almost his entire career.

1993’s Black Tie White Noise – a largely dreadful album that some critics had the chutzpah to claim was an incredible return to form – opened with an instrumental called The Wedding, which appeared to reference the sax solo on Sound and Vision. Later the same year, his soundtrack to a BBC adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia (which struggled to No 87 on the UK chart, despite being markedly superior to anything Bowie had released in a decade), opened with a title track that not only quoted Space Oddity and All the Madmen, but conjured a mood of bittersweet autobiographical nostalgia that Bowie would revisit on his grand 00s comeback single Where Are We Now? 1995’s 1 Outside reanimated his late-70s collaboration with Brian Eno, while an abundance of 12-string acoustic guitar meant 1999’s Hours… carried a noticeable, if superficial, whiff of Hunky Dory. Even his most defiantly modern album of the decade, Earthling, bore echoes of his history: it was an attempt to Bowie-ise 90s dance music, including drum’n’bass, just as he had once Bowie-ised mid-70s soul; something about its broiling din of breakbeats, industrial synths and noisy guitars recalled the racket of Scary Monsters and Heroes.

It was a tendency that reached its zenith with Brilliant Adventure’s jewel: the previously unreleased but much-bootlegged album Toy, recorded in 2000, on which Bowie delved deeper into his past than ever before. Its obvious highlight is Shadow Man, an impossibly beautiful piano ballad that dated from the Ziggy Stardust era and that, lyrically at least, could easily have slipped into that album’s concept: “Look into his eyes and see your reflection / look into the stars and see his eyes”. But it largely contains fresh versions of songs that had once dogged their author.

In the 70s and 80s, you were never far from a new release repackaging Bowie’s pre-fame 60s material, usually with a cover photograph that deceptively implied the contents were contemporary rather than archival. Toy offers a more tasteful sampling of that era. It includes the two best songs Bowie wrote before Space Oddity: there’s a great version of Let Me Sleep Beside You, but The London Boys loses something of its grimy kitchen-sink drama quality amid the new distorted guitar and synth arrangement. It rescues Space Oddity’s B-side Conversation Piece, a bleak pen portrait of Bowie the late 60s also-ran – “invisible and dumb, and no one will recall me” – from underserved obscurity, amplifying its brooding mood by slowing its tempo and lowering the vocal register. It might be the definitive version of the song.

Toy leans noticeably heavier on mod Bowie than the purveyor of Anthony Newley-inspired whimsy who recorded his eponymous 1967 debut album, which seems a shame. Bowie is clearly having a high old time roaring through his old freakbeat single Can’t Help Thinking About Me, but the revamp work on Silly Boy Blue is more striking, transforming the stagey original into something stately and anthemic. It might have been more interesting to hear Bowie try similarly repurposing We Are Hungry Men or The Gospel According to Tony Day rather than updating Baby Loves That Way, a nice enough song that nevertheless betrays its inspiration – Smokey Robinson’s You Really Got a Hold On Me – a little too obviously. Shadow Man and Conversation Piece aside, it’s an enjoyable curiosity rather than a major release. The other late 60s obscurity, Hole in the Ground, is charming but slight; the title track, a new song spurred by Bowie’s rummaging through his early years, is good rather than revelatory.

In a sense, Toy was a dead end. Bowie would finally rediscover the kind of inspiration that had powered him through the 1970s by abandoning his past rather than picking through it. His 2002 album Heathen was fresh, gripping and highly accessible, and by his final set, Blackstar, he really had reached the long-promised return to prime form – it bore almost no relation to anything he had previously attempted.

But in a strange way, Toy was also prescient. After his death, Bowie’s estate embarked on one of the most extensive archive excavations in recent memory, of which the Brilliant Adventure box and this version of Toy forms a part. There have been umpteen live releases, reconstructions of “lost” albums and lavish box sets of demos and unreleased recordings: ephemera, outtakes and juvenilia recast as something more essential. That’s effectively what Bowie himself did on Toy. As was so often the case, he got there first.

The 11CD or 18LP box set Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001), featuring Toy on CD or 2LP, is released 26 November. A 3CD or 6 x 10-inch vinyl box set of Toy featuring the album alongside alternate mixes and unplugged versions, entitled Toy: Box, is released 7 January.

What Alexis listened to this week

Bruise – Theme

Another belated discovery via best of 2021 lists: a phenomenal collision of insistent acid lines, breakbeats and potent, epic synth.

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