As this 46-song retrospective shows, David Bowie has changed performing personas almost as often as he reapplied eyeliner over the past 20 years. Each passing phase drew both critics and the curious in for a closer look. What they eventually saw was a man who used permutations of rock, soul and disco as one giant aural prop for his true theatrical passions. But it’s to Bowie’s credit that he has sustained the kind of acclaim that most entertainers only dream of over a long career.
In 1972 Bowie had begun to assume one of his more cunning roles, the glittery Ziggy Stardust, the crusading pop star inspired by an obscure American singer named Vince Taylor. When Bowie “confessed” to a reporter that year to being gay, it didn’t really matter whether he was homosexual or not. It was part of the Ziggy guise, and his apparent androgyny attracted more attention to Bowie’s career. His talent was real, though, and he backed up his Ziggy pretense with some stirring rock and roll, including “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Panic in Detroit,” which are both in this collection.
Bowie shucked the heavy metallic sound he had perfected with Ziggy’s backup band, the Spiders, and hit his commercial stride in the mid ’70s with the albums Young Americans in 1975 and Station to Station a year later. His persona of choice then was the entertainer known as the Thin White Duke. A couple of previously unreleased tracks from this period made it here, including the soulful “After Today,” which features an obscure background singer named Luther Vandross, and a faithful rendering of Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.”
Bowie, with the aid of avant-garde composer Brian Eno, embraced the techno-pop boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s and wrote some of his most detached music. It was a clever way to distance himself from his past endeavors yet still keep critics interested in his new synthesized sound. (“Helden” is the German version of Bowie’s classic “Heroes” and he gets an A + for his accent.)
The last song on Sound + Vision is “Ashes to Ashes,” from 1980’s Scary Monsters LP. That means the set leaves out most of Bowie’s commercially accessible music, from Let’s Dance, released in 1983. But not too much else of value is missing.
Bowie has spent most of his time recently honing his respectable acting skills on Broadway (The Elephant Man) and onscreen (The Hunger). The next retrospective set anyone issues of his art of the moment may well be videotaped dramatic performances. (Rykodisc)