Having already established himself as the most chameleonic single pop-music figure of the 20th century, David Bowie had another surprise in store at the beginning of 1977. With the release of Low, he shed the skins of earlier personae—Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke—and defiantly stepped away from outright rock ’n’ roll and the superstar trappings that felt to him more like traps. As announced by the title of this, the third comprehensive anthology in Parlophone and Rhino’s series of career-spanning box sets, Bowie was looking for “A New Career in a New Town.” The town was Berlin, the cultural capital that begat what became known as the Berlin Trilogy of albums—Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, which provide the heart, if not the bulk, of this extravagant, beautifully packaged 13-LP vinyl set (also released as an 11-CD set or 192/24 and 96/24 downloads). The career? For much of this 1977–1982 period, at least—and did any musician other than Miles Davis have as many periods?—it was as a maker of ambitious, nearly unprecedented, sonic studio art.
Low marked the entrance of Brian Eno into Bowie’s coterie of collaborators, and the introduction of primarily instrumental tracks that presaged Eno’s full-on ambient works and his association with Talking Heads, as well as the chill-out sounds of the early 90s. Listening today to the warm, spacious, remastered tracks of Low’s legendary Side Two, beginning with “Warszawa” and concluding with “Subterraneans,” is as transcendent and revelatory an experience as it was 40 years ago.
On “Heroes,” Bowie doubled down on the anti-commercial bet he placed with Low. The payoff, on a strange song like “Joe the Lion” or darkly drifting instrumentals likes “Sense of Doubt” and “Moss Garden,” is in the abiding sense of perplexity and pessimism that feels as fitting today as it did at the end of the 1970s. Lodger, offered in both its original thin and muddy 1979 mix and in Visconti’s Bowie-endorsed, broader, more detailed 2017 remix, has a kind of Dadaist hilarity, threatening to fall apart under Bowie’s mannered vocals. However, the working rhythm section of the moment (guitarist Carlos Alomar, pianist Sean Hayes, bassist George Murray, drummer Dennis Davis), abetted by Eno, Visconti, guitarist Adrian Belew, violinist Simon House, and synthesizer player Roger Powell, generated a relentless Talking Heads–like drive, especially on the wonderfully stripped-down and brutal “D.J.”
While Bowie pulled back from his avant-garde, Berlin-trilogy experimentalism on Scary Monsters—recorded in New York and London, with contributions by guitarists Chuck Hammer, Robert Fripp, and Pete Townshend, pianist Roy Bittan, and others—he and Visconti came up with a ten-song set that summarized and synthesized the previous decade’s sonic and stylistic investigations. And “Ashes to Ashes” demythologizes the “junkie” Major Tom for good. Many considerate it Bowie’s last great album, at least until Blackstar, his 25th and last.
Ultimately, like Rhino’s previous box sets, Five Years 1969–1973 and Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976), A New Career is really for Bowie completists: You have to ask yourself if you need both versions of Lodger; two versions of 1979’s Stage, even though it is Bowie’s best concert album and the 2017 mix includes extra tracks; and the “Heroes” EP, with French and German versions. The double-LP Re:Call 3, which brings together 14 singles, including “Alabama Song,” “Crystal Japan,” “Under Pressure” (with Queen), and “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” (with Bing Crosby), and the five songs from the orchestral Bertolt Brecht’s Baal EP is a more enticing bonus. So is the 84-page, large-format, photos/credits/commentary-packed hardback book, which contains producer Tony Visconti’s essays about the recording process behind A New Career’s four studio albums, including 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Bowie’s songwriting strategy was to use the studio as an instrument, and add or improvise his lyrics after basic tracks had been laid down, with cryptic, if not absurdist, results. Although both Low and “Heroes” boasted practically radio-friendly songs and singles (“Sound and Vision,” “Breaking Glass,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Heroes”), and Lodger’s fractured anarchy takes place within tighter structures, and Scary Monsters is, relatively speaking, a return to conventional tunes, Bowie, on all these albums, forces listeners to tease out meaning for themselves from what the critic Ralph J. Gleason once called, referring to The Band’s Music from Big Pink, “the rhetoric of enigma.”
Just as Low and “Heroes” generated controversy when they were issued, A New Career met with immediate criticism upon its initial release: Discerning listeners detected enough mastering flaws (volume drops, bass heaviness, flutter) that Parlophone went back to the board on the song “Heroes” and pledged to compensate purchasers with redone tracks or discs. That faux pas is not Bowie’s, whose eccentric musical giant steps are the hallmarks of this set.