I wrote about the outstanding new Sam Phillips anthology over at In Review Online, and really cannot say enough great things about this record. As a document of strange and wondrous Americana, it is as essential as the Harry Smith box– and even more compulsively playable. A must-buy if ever I heard one. Go check it out.
Nothing Has Changed, a three-disc David Bowie retrospective, opens with a brand new recording: “Sue (In a Season of Crime)” is a full seven minutes of swirling desire and paranoid cacophony, the singer weathering a storm of frenzied jazz; he might as well be fronting the Titanic’s orchestra as the ship makes its descent into the icy ocean. It is as bold and as progressive as anything the man has cut in two decades—a return to adventure after the deliberately classicist pleasures of The Next Day.
It is not the collection’s only surprise. From “Sue,” the set takes one step back into songs from The Next Day, and proceeds to trace Bowie’s entire career as a narrative told in reverse: It moves from The Next Day back to Reality and Heathen, his fine, assured albums from the early 2000s; doesn’t arrive at Berlin until the end of the second disc; and ends with a few never-anthologized singles that predate Major Tom.
But it’s more complicated even than that: The set also includes multiple songs from the never-released album Toy, and many of its songs are presented as remixes, or at the very least as radio edits. (Of the 18 songs on Disc 1, only two of them are in forms that appeared on previous albums, and both are from The Next Day). The selections presented here also give equal weight to each era of the artist’s storied history, much like the seminal Little Feat box set; so, there are roughly as many songs from Heathen and Hours… as there are from, say, Low and Ziggy Stardust. The first disc is entirely devoted to music spanning Outside to the present day.
Of course every anthology has an argument to make, every compilation some editorial slant—and what’s on offer here is frankly revelatory. While some may argue that it’s a slightly off-kilter telling of the Bowie narrative, it is neither untruthful nor unrewarding. It mounts a successful argument for the ongoing virtue of Bowie’s music, cleverly casting the somewhat classicist albums of his latter years as the touchstone here, rather than as mere code; opening with “Sue” and including things like the James Murphy remix of “Love is Lost,” meanwhile, give the familiarity of the more recent material an adventurous slant that they didn’t quite have in their proper album context.
What Nothing Has Changed offers, then, is something rather rare indeed: A chance to hear a body of song that we know by heart, but to experience it anew; to hear marginal albums as essential chapters in an ongoing narrative, and to explore the threads that have always been there in Bowie’s music, even as he flits from fashion to fashion, finding substance in style and using change as a catalyst for focused songcraft.
True enough, then: For this artist—so often called a chameleon—nothing has changed, even as everything has changed. This collection is superlative proof of how illuminating, how paradigm-shifting a great anthology can be.