Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Few Thoughts On David Bowie's Toy

A few weeks back, David Bowie's "lost" 2001 album Toy found its way to the internets. After an initial bout of excitement and hype, the critics seemed to fade in their fascination. The record was quickly deemed a throwaway, subpar, or even just mediocre. Maybe some of these things are true, but before one jumps to such conclusions, it's worth investigating where Toy came from, and what its context is in the larger context of Bowie's career. Here are a few of the points that made us here at HAD decide that the record should not be so quickly written off.

It's not a finished record.

This is the first, and perhaps most relevant point. No one knows where this leak of Toy came from, or how "done" it truly was. Sure, Bowie claimed at the time that the record was "done", but there's no telling how far along in the process these tapes are: have they been mixed? mastered? had final overdubs? Granted, they may give some insight as to the state of the final record, but there's no way of knowing just how this record might have sounded should it have seen the light of day.

It's a record by a touring band.

Much like Reality, which was recorded by the Heathen touring band, Toy is the product of living on the road. By all accounts, Toy was recorded by the band that toured with Bowie in 1999/2000 after the release of hours... Unlike many Bowie affairs, these songs were created by a band that was experienced not only in playing with Bowie, but interacting with him on a daily basis. Videos released at the time showed Bowie writing songs ("Afraid", in particular) with bandleader Mark Plati in a way that, while not crazy, certainly seemed to deviate from process Bowie had followed in the studio previously.

Who produced this record?

While we have no idea of the answer to this question, it is a worthy one. Almost all of Bowie's records are heavily influenced by their producers, even when that producer was Bowie himself. Who was leading the creative push here, and what does that mean for the record? It doesn't make up for the record's mainstream sound, but it might help to explain it. Moreover, if you took the important chunks of this record and put them in the hands of an able bodied producer, might you wind up with, oh, say, Heathen?

It marks his departure from Reeves Gabrels.

For the ~10 years prior to this record, Bowie had been heavily collaborating with avant garde guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Gabrels left halfway through recording hours..., but this is the first record where Bowie was truly free of Gabrels' input. It's worth considering that Bowie may have been somewhat adrift with the departure of his longtime collaborator. Moreover, it may explain why the record leans so heavily on Mike Garson and Gail Ann Dorsey, while Bowie contributes textural snippets of stylophone, piano and sax.

It marks Bowie's return to form.

Toy is loaded with Bowie tracks from the 60's. This had begun with his live band's playing of "Can't Help Thinking About Me" on the 1999 tour. While that track (live version below) isn't included on the record - a travesty if you ask us - it was the beginning of the project that would become Toy. By most accounts it was Mark Plati that started encouraging Bowie to embrace his former self. Although Plati would get the axe soon after Toy failed to go to market, the effect of this influence can't be minimized. After dipping his toe in the 60's, Bowie went whole hog and staged a comeback of massive proportions. Kicking off with shows at the Roseland and Glastonbury that were much lauded "greatest hits" sets, the change of direction then sent Bowie back into the studio and subsequently on two world tours that were his most solid in years.

It is the foundation for Heathen.

What emerged from the wreckage of Toy was arguably the best record of the second half of Bowie's career. Produced by Tony Visconti and with Bowie in top form, Heathen brought Bowie back to the world as an artist of note, and truly comfortable in his own skin. Not only does Toy feature a host of b-sides from Heathen, but it also features two tracks that would wind up on the record. However, the connection runs even deeper than that. Listening to Toy, the sonic palette for Heathen is already falling into place, with the return of true orchestration, Bowie testing his vocal bounds, and atmospheric textures being used sparingly, rather than as a focal point. The fact that Bowie felt comfortable embracing his roots on Heathen was undoubtedly related to the fact that he had tested them on Toy, and things had turned out just fine indeed.

And so.

Just to be clear: we're not saying that Toy is the best record Bowie ever recorded. However, to miss its context is to miss much of what the record has to offer. Getting to hear Toy is like getting a private view into Bowie's process, and seeing what carried him from the blandness of hours... into the amazingness of Heathen. You can dismiss it if you like, but for us Toy seeing the light of day has been very enlightening indeed.


Christian Kilrane Carter Coleman said...

Excellent!!!! Sounds like you hit it on the nail..