Album review: David Bowie - Who Can I Be Now? boxset

David Bowie - Who Can I Be Now? (1974 - 1976) (Parlophone Records)

David Bowie.

David Bowie.

THE KEY artefact in this lavish new Bowie boxset, charting the artist's journey from post-Ziggy to 'Plastic Soul', to Thin White Duke, is one of the great missing pieces of the Bowie discography - The Gouster.

The Gouster is both a dry run and lost album, first draft and alternative take - a picture of what might have been. It developed in the aftermath of 1974's Diamond Dogs, where Bowie pushed glam rock into extreme territories, the like of which his contemporaries would never have dared. It's apocalyptic avant-rock was a dramatic curtain closer and high watermark from the man who largely invented the genre. The album simultaneously declared Glam could go no further and that it was time for a change.

In response Bowie went back to his youth, exploring the soul and R'n'B he loved as a young 'mod about London'. Now based in the USA, he was in the music's homeland, soaking up the Philadelphia Sound, the early stirrings of disco, and going to shows at New York's Harlem Apollo. Securing the services of brilliant young guitarist Carlos Alomar (who had worked with James Brown ) and emerging soul singer Luther Vandross, among others, Bowie producing a set of soul inspired songs recorded with a view to being released under the title The Gouster - a Scottish word for a "ne're do well" which had worked its way into American slang.

Bowie, however, changed his mind, and shelved that incarnation of the album. However he retained some of its songs, and added a few others, creating in the process, something slightly different to what was originally planned - 1975's Young Americans. The Gouster passed into obscurity, with the closest the public ever came to hearing it being when Young Americans was re-released in 1991 with bonus tracks of heretofore shelved Gouster songs.

Finally, 41 years after it was recorded, The Gouster is released - sort of. Two tracks intended for that album, 'Shilling The Rubes' and 'I Am A Lazer' are not included. Nonetheless this is as close to what Bowie originally intended as possible, and its value for Bowie die-hards is to hear Young Americans from a different, more sombre, emotionally vulnerable perspective.

Unlike Young Americans, The Gouster has a definite emotional arc, beginning with the exuberance of a night out in 'John I'm Only Dancing (Again )'. Disco was only starting to peer out of the gay and black undergrounds, and for Bowie to not just be aware of it, but to create an authentic, lively, giddy disco number, proves just how 'in the zone' he was in the seventies.

The hedonism goes to Bowie's head on the grandstanding 'SomeBody Up There Likes Me' where he comes across as a sort of Citizen Kane type figure (prefiguring all those unfortunate "I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I'd be an excellent dictator" comments from '76 ).

This version though is noticeably different from the over-wrought Young Americans version. The Gouster mix allows for more space between the instruments, more room for the whole arrangement to breathe. Unfortunately, Bowie's soulful exclamations at the end of the YA version - its saving grace - giving a largely directionless song an invigorating climax, are absent from The Gouster, thus highlighting its overall weaknesses.

After the party hard night is the comedown of the wee small hours, and 'It's Gonna Be Me' is Bowie (or his Gouster character ) laid bare. The sparse arrangement puts the vocals centre-stage, giving Bowie room to act the part of a man spilling his heart out to a friend (or barman? ): "I balled just another young girl last night/Oh brother, I left a woman in that morning bed...Leaving another girl to weep over the breakfast tray".

This is epic, late-night confessional soul, Bowie acting the part of the remorseful love-rat to perfection. His yearning and guilt for the girl he discarded animates the chorus, where each word of "Come back my..." is a gradual rise in emotion and register, building to an anguished, pleading, declaration of "baby". A showstopper.

Brought down to "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart", Bowie ponders "can I be real?" on 'Who Can I Be Now?'. While it deals with examination of the self and identity, the mood is lighter, more upbeat - Bowie seeing this confrontation as a fresh opportunity for renewal and discovery. While not among his greatest songs, it does encapsulate his restless seventies exploration of personae.

The themes of the preceding two songs come together on 'Can You Hear Me?", Bowie asking, "Don't talk of heartaches, ohh, I remember them", before admitting he may be "faking it all", thus posing the question: Who is the real David Bowie? On Young Americans the song was its most forgettable moment. Sandwiched between the John Lennon collaborations of 'Across The Universe' and 'Fame', it was a token soul instance when the album itself had tired of the genre. On The Gouster, it makes thematic and emotional sense, emerging as a fine song, with a sensitive, soulful, vocal by Bowie.

With that run of cathartic songs, Bowie enters the closing lap with one of his greatest songs - 'Young Americans'. Its joy, exuberance, and zest come across as a new morning after the previous emotional darkness. Closing The Gouster is another Young Americans-to be highlight, 'Right', featuring stunning, complex, vocal interplay between Bowie and his backing singers (including Vandross ). This mix is also different from the YA version, being less taut, and with a touch of psychedelica.

The Gouster emerges as stronger, more coherent, than Young Americans. It's soul from start to finish, whereas YA chickens out in the end. Little wonder some of the musicians who worked on The Gouster were so upset when they saw what Bowie finally decided to go with. At least now The Gouster gets its belated chance to have its day.

Who Can I Be Now? is an outstanding box set of a time of transition as Bowie sought to chart a new path from rock to something else entirely. Also included are Diamond Dogs (5/5 ); Young Americans (3/5 ); two different mixes of in concert album David Live (3/5 ), a treat for hardcore Bowie fans, with its re-imaginings of various songs (Bowie always hated the album, dismissing it as "David Dead", a comment that was funny until January this year ); two mixes of Station To Station (5/5 ); Live Nassau Coliseum '76 (4/5 ); and Re:Call 2 (2/5 ), featuring oddball mixes and unsatisfactory edits of various, mostly US, singles.

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