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The mid-1980s weren't Bowie's Golden Years but there's still plenty that will intrigue fans

A new box set pulls together tracks from the star's musical low point, writes John Meagher, but even though The Thin White Duke was struggling with writer's block at the time, it's definitely worth a listen

It seems hard to fathom today, considering his prodigious recording career and fondness for touring, but David Bowie's first show in Ireland was as late as 1987. And unfortunately for his legion of local fans, the gig at Slane Castle coincided with what's largely thought of as his creative nadir.

A few months previously, he had released Never Let Me Down. It's now widely seen as the weakest of the 27 studio albums he released, and only a few years later he was doing his best to distance himself from it.

The ultra-theatrical global jaunt that he concocted to support the album The Glass Spider Tour is the most divisive of the many tours he did over the course of that lengthy career.

Reviews from the tour were lukewarm - the shows were commercially successful, but few thought they lived up to those of an artist of Bowie's stature.

If he had an extraordinarily fruitful 1970s - releasing one remarkable album after the next from 1970's The Man Who Sold the World to 1979's Lodger - he had, by his standards, a pretty wretched 1980s.

His artistic troubles offer us a reminder that even the finest musicians can lose their way, especially if they chase the mainstream success that Bowie craved.

Take 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) out of the equation - that feels like a continuation of his great '70s run - and you're left with Let's Dance, Tonight and Never Let Me Down. They're three of his bestselling albums, but with the exception of Let's Dance, they're rarely part of the Bowie story. Until now.

Parlophone has announced that it will be releasing a box set, Loving the Alien, in October to document Bowie's fraught period between 1983 and 1988.

It's the fourth in a series of multi-album box sets that the label has been bringing out to chart his career since his untimely death in January 2016.

But unlike the previous three, this one is a much tougher sell. And yet, because this is Bowie, even in the depths of inspiration drought, there is still some intriguing work, although you will have to search much harder to find it.

The box set's title is taken from the opening track on Tonight, and it's long been a favourite among Bowie aficionados. Loving the Alien was Bowie's riposte to organised religion, and its lengthy seven-minute run time doesn't feel excessive.

It was one of just two songs on the album that were written solely by Bowie - it was all too clear that he was struggling with writer's block.

The signs were there on the Nile Rodgers-produced Let's Dance - one of its standouts, China Girl, had been originally written with Iggy Pop during their Berlin sojourn in the late 1970s and had appeared on Pop's The Idiot album.

But when it came to Tonight - rushed out after Let's Dance sold eight million copies - Bowie also ransacked the songs he and Pop had co-written seven years earlier. However, his versions of Tonight, featuring Tina Turner, and Neighborhood Threat weren't a patch on Pop's original recordings. He even resorted to covering Don't Look Down from Iggy's 1979 New Values album.

The reviews were so-so and Bowie was soon talking about how dissatisfied he was with the album.

Never Let Me Down, he promised, would be different.

And it was. It was much more rock-oriented, and the blue-eyed-soul-meets-1980s-pop of the two predecessors was largely abandoned.

But the album's fussy production didn't help matters, and even the best tracks - most notably Zeroes - felt poorly served.

Years later, Bowie reflected on where it had all gone wrong.

"(The huge commercial success) meant absolutely nothing to me," he said in 1995. "It didn't make me feel good. I felt dissatisfied with everything I was doing, and eventually it started showing in my work. 

"The next two albums after (Let's Dance) showed that my lack of interest in my own work was really becoming transparent.

"My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I've gotten to a place now where I'm not very judgemental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it's in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it's a failure artistically, it doesn't bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it."

Perhaps mindful of how he felt about the album, Parlophone's box set will feature an entirely rejigged version of the record. Mario McNulty was brought in to offer a fresh production, and there are new string arrangements from Nico Muhly and a cameo appearance from Laurie Anderson.

A stripped-back version of Zeroes, dubbed Zeroes (2018), suggests the enterprise may will encourage Bowie fans to revisit the album.

The song has far greater focus than the original, and recalls his earliest work from the late 1960s - something that Bowie had (unsuccessfully) attempted in 1987.

It would be six years until he released another solo album. Bowie tried to reinvent himself in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Tin Machine, although that, too, is a period that few remember with much fondness.

Fortunately, the career-spanning sets performed on his 1990 Sound+Vision tour proved more welcome. The idea was to retire his old songs but, thankfully, that was a promise he failed to keep.

Belfast Telegraph

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