David Bowie has always been one of pop’s most frustrating performers, as capable of creating original, barrier-breaking work as he is of pushing lazy, unfocused material. Sound + Vision is the opening salvo in Rykodisc’s Bowie reissue campaign, which over the next two years will restore all of the performer’s RCA work to the marketplace. Concentrating on the high points, this striking retrospective (three CDs or cassettes, six LPs) gives shape to Bowie’s career and makes sense out of an erratic output, much as Decade did for Neil Young. With few notable exceptions, all of Bowie’s finest RCA-era work can be heard on Sound + Vision.
This box isn’t a greatest-hits collection (Bowie’s biggest hits for RCA, “Fame” and “Golden Years,” are both missed), nor is it a rarities collection. Only five of its forty-six tracks were previously unreleased, and none of those is revelatory. Instead, the idea behind Sound + Vision is to bring together familiar and half-forgotten tracks to build a sturdy, coherent set. And with the possible exception of Station to Station, his most consistent album, released in 1976, this is where Bowie’s work becomes most lucid.
Nor are the rarities a draw. The wan 1969 demo of “Space Oddity” is about the best: This intimate performance is more private and engrossing than the released version. A Ziggy-era cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” isn’t as fascinating or as revealing as the three selections from the 1973 oldies album Pin-Ups. A cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” recorded for Station to Station, is an interesting oddity but misses the mark.
With its chronological sequencing – from the demo of “Space Oddity” to its 1980 answer song, the assured “Ashes to Ashes” – Sound + Vision states the case for understanding Bowie’s career as one of searching followed by growth. The moves from fey to glam, from soul to experimentation, make sense here as logical steps for a performer insistent on finding something new at every turn. Rykodisc’s Bowie reissues will certainly be worthwhile – the label has a rich tradition of adding value to its rereleases – and Sound + Vision is a bold, promising beginning to the series.