The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987:
Sight & Sound
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by John Metzger
Sun July 15, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Much as it was for rock ’n‘ roll in general, the period between 1980 and 1987 was a difficult era for David Bowie to weather, and the advent of MTV, which emphasized style more than substance, did little to help matters. Always one to ride the crest of whatever wave had arisen from within the sea of popular culture, Bowie parlayed his photogenic looks as well as his gift for concocting engaging melodies into some of the most commercially successful songs of his career. In the process, however, he also sacrificed at least a part of his artistic outlook. Not surprisingly, then, The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987: Sight & Sound is hardly a representation of the finer moments of his career, but as it progresses, it does succeed in making the case that his albums weren’t completely without merit, even if the coldly calculated manipulation of his image had become grossly apparent.
One of the biggest problems plaguing Bowie’s output from the 1980s is that, rather than moving forward, he began to shift uncomfortably from side to side. Although he continued to adopt current musical trends to suit his own purpose, he no longer was staking out new terrain. In essence, Bowie seemed to have run out of ideas, and his reaction was simply to waltz through his catalogue from the previous decade, picking and choosing among the various textures he had explored, if only to recast them as modern pop standards that were fit for mainstream consumption. On Ashes to Ashes, he updated the psychedelic folk of Space Oddity — complete with the reincarnation of Major Tom, and on Modern Love, the arena-ready rock of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was toned down and injected with an R&B flavor. Elsewhere, the heady, insular atmospherics of his collaborations with Brian Eno (Low, Heroes, and Lodger) surfaced in his playfully demented interpretation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Alabama Song as well as in, to a lesser extent, When the Wind Blows, while the dance-friendly soul of Young Americans served as the template for his increasingly frequent funk-driven forays, such as Let’s Dance, Fashion, and Day in Day out.
As uneven, unfocused, and decidedly dull as Bowie’s albums during the Reagan years were — and as dated as their synth-drenched arrangements have become — The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987 rather effectively encapsulates the era. In doing so, it highlights his rise as a superstar as well as his decline as an artist. Strangely, though, it also demonstrates how he deftly managed to subvert both frames of reference in regard to his artistic pursuits, which explains why, after its inclusion as the third disc in last year’s comprehensive retrospective The Platinum Collection, it now has been issued as a standalone product — if only in the hope that it might obtain some semblance of appreciation from fans and critics alike.
In that sense, The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987: Sight & Sound’s accompanying DVD — which compiles the 15 videos that he made during this portion of his career — is more than just another way of wringing the spare change from the pockets of Bowie’s fans. Its inclusion actually helps to put the material featured on the set into perspective, even if its soundtrack disappointingly wasn’t re-mixed to take advantage of today’s home theater systems. Over the course of the program, it becomes obvious that Bowie was tremendously interested in the prospects and potential that working in this new, visual medium could provide.
While not all of the segments that Bowie made with his directorial collaborators were gems, some pieces served their associated songs remarkably well. David Mallet brought his societal observations to Under Pressure and Let’s Dance, and he appropriately gave an art-film appearance to the performance featured in The Drowned Girl. In a few cases, Bowie’s compositions nearly became secondary to the stunning imagery that was employed. Julien Temple, for example, dealt with the state of race relations by dotting his black-and-white depiction of Absolute Beginners with surreally alluring splashes of color, and his sex- and violence-strewn film for Day in Day out makes palpable the disturbing undercurrents of Bowie’s sketchy lyrics. Elsewhere, the animation sequences that were created for the Steve Barron-helmed Underground as well as for the Jimmy T. Murakami-guided When the Wind Blows are positively striking. Aside from Scary Monsters, which began the decade in fine fashion, the combination of music and visuals that is showcased on The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987: Sight & Sound confers all the insight that anyone really needs to comprehend and navigate David Bowie’s efforts during the otherwise forgettable era of superficiality known as the 1980s.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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