Rock Album Review: David Bowie’s “Toy” – Browsing Its Back Pages

By Matt Hanson

by David Bowie Toy is a solid, enjoyable and dynamic effort from an artist who never failed to remain interesting and vital well into his later years.

In the year 2000, David Bowie found himself in the unexpected position of being a former countercultural statesman. The slender white duke had lived long enough to glimpse the future his prophetic songs had helped imagine. It would be close, but not quite fair, to claim that he was the father of alternative music. Ever the self-deprecating Englishman, Bowie himself would likely have looked back to Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, both of whom were crucial artistic influences and personal friends. Fresh off of a consummate performance in the Glastonbury Festival by the start of the new century, the perpetually changing Bowie had found a way to remain innovative and dynamic without reverting to the sometimes psychotic excesses of his youth.

Clearly, Bowie was very much in the right space, personally and creatively, to start browsing his final pages. Bowie was a tireless worker with a large catalog of songs that he had always intended to cover. So he’s got a solid band behind him and knocked out some of them in one or two live studio takes that were spontaneous and open. The result was what is now the new box set Toy, which is sort of a lost Bowie record. It can be purchased on its own as a three-disc set or as part of a larger box chronicling the late 90s of his career.

Toy never ended up materializing as a proper record in its time. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this has more to do with a distracted distraction from the record company than the value of those records. Toy is a solid, enjoyable and dynamic effort from an artist who never failed to remain interesting and vital well into his later years. It opens with the pleasant but fairly tasteless “I Dig Everything” which does what could be an engaging premise for a song – really? you dig all? — tasteless. “I wave at the police and they don’t answer me / They don’t dig it all up.” Apparently not. And neither do we, it must be said. I enjoyed the exuberant “Karma Man” much more, with its graceful refrain of “slow down”. Generally good advice. I particularly dug the rave-ups of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” and “Baby Loves That Way” which has a happy, singing chorus about a wayward lover that would have made an ideal debut single if the record had been released at the turn of the century, when Bowie had anticipated it.

ToyThe three-volume format, with two separate discs offering different versions of the first disc, initially feels free. But the multi-volume structure ends up working to its advantage. Toy finds its own level. Usually, the bonus material doesn’t add much to the box sets, other than satisfying the appetite of the most snobbish and snobbish fans, who simply have to hear whatever is available, the more obscure the better. A “remixed” or “alternative” song doesn’t have to be limited to novelty. After giving each ToyThe three versions of a few turns, it becomes clear that the second and third discs – labeled as an “alternate” mix and an “Unplugged and Somewhat Slightly Electric” respectively – bring out an emotion and a majesty that the first disc lacks somewhat. They also add a few new versions of old titles just for fun.

“Liza Jane” opens the second disc and harkens back to one of the earliest songs Bowie ever worked on, when he tinkered with blues standards in pubs as a member of The King Bees, dressed in mops and matching shirts. ‘In the Heat of the Morning’ first appeared as part of the ’70s BBC Sessions with John Peel, and this version strays a bit from the edge in the edgier earlier version. The largely acoustic format of the third disc makes the acrobatic vocal training of “Silly Boy Blue” truly impressive, since Bowie’s lyrical voice (always his secret weapon) is not overshadowed by the backing band. The minimalist approach also gives “Shadow Man,” a slightly ominous ode to the hidden self, greater depth.

Bowie was a voracious consumer of all kinds of musical and non-musical cultures and was widely and deeply read. Some of the songs that appear multiple times on Toy are attempts at nuanced character studies, something from short story to song. “The London Boys” is the story of a naive boy who quickly gets in over his head with grungy street people. The portrait is more likeable when performed acoustically. “Conversation Piece” is a first-person account by a Prufrock-like writer (“I’m a thinker, not a talker/and I don’t have anyone to talk to anyway/I don’t see the road to rain in my eyes”) whose realization of his own debilitating isolation comes too late. He’s not the kind of character you’d expect from the previously gleefully outrageous Bowie, but maybe that’s what that the friction of time does to a man.

We are fortunate that such a gifted, generous and encouraging artist sui generis because Bowie has been producing consistent quality music for so long. It’s not all as unwaveringly brilliant as its stellar ’70s run – but that’s no dross. He’s the rare artist (in any field) who can maintain that level of intensity. Toy is a solid and accessible lost artifact from an often overlooked period in Bowie’s career. And it’s worth hearing for that reason alone. If anything, one comes out of this three-disc set with a refreshing sense of flexibility from a legend who could revisit his old material and do new, having a lot of fun while he’s at it. What more could we ask for?

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at artistic fuse whose work has also appeared in American interest, Deflector, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.

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