When David Bowie died on Jan. 10, 2016, the tragedy was alleviated to a degree because he’d just released one of his greatest records. Blackstar, which came out just two days before — on Bowie’s birthday — was a glimpse into the genius mind of an artist who knew his days are numbered. Solemn, deliciously jarring, and endlessly surprising, the album put a period on a life rife with innovation, imagination, and an innate inability to stagnate.
If Blackstar was the brilliant ending chapter in Bowie’s story, then the new release of Bowie’s famous “lost album,” 2000’s Toy, is a kind of footnote. Those looking for some sort of revelatory message in a bottle will be disappointed by what is essentially a completely serviceable album, while Bowie fanatics will be happy to visit for a while with an old friend. The record, which was only leaked in the past, is out Friday as part of the latest Bowie box set, David Bowie 5. Brilliant Adventure (1992 – 2001).
Toy was a bit of a trip down memory lane for Bowie himself; it features reworks of his earliest songs from the Sixties — before he became the rock & roll chameleon we know and love — recorded rather spontaneously after his band played Glastonbury in the summer of 2000. “I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio,” he wrote to fans at the time. “I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.”
Listening to Toy, it’s clear Bowie is having an absolute blast, breathing new life into bits and bobs of his catalogue only really known by diehards. Shadows of his discography flit through the record; opening rocker “I Dig Everything,” originally written in 1966, has shades of his 1973 cover of Them’s “Here Comes the Night,” while his reworking of 1967 crooner “Silly Boy Blue” calls back (probably unintentionally) to the 1986 Labyrinth theme “Underground.”
Still, it’s not all that surprising that the record was shelved. Despite the joy evident in every note of the album, it’s far from transcendent — especially coming from a musician who refused to stay in one lane. It’s a record one might expect from an artist on the precipice of settling down — and that makes sense since Bowie was indeed at a crossroads at that point in his career. He was trying to figure out how to fit into the modern music landscape — which he did, as he continued to innovate on 2002’s Heathen and 2013’s The Next Day, which marked his first record in 10 years at that time and reassured fans he was never going to become a moldering icon. And then there was Blackstar… timely and timeless and fresher than anything his contemporaries had on offer.
So, yes, there’s nothing surprising about Toy, and that’s OK. Footnotes have their purpose and so does this album — it’s supplemental material, a sidenote, a wandering walk off the main path with a friend we’ve been missing.