Album review: David Bowie's Toy reflects his vocal range and prowess as a musician
It’s a rejigging of old songs to fresh, modern beats, but not a study in experimentation like only David Bowie can deliver.
It’s August 1999 and David Bowie is performing at the show VH1 Storytellers, where musicians share a story about a song and then play it. Bowie is keen on playing something from his early career, around the mid-60s, and chooses Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which he prefaced by describing as “the first song I wrote and recorded as a solo artist” and goes on to point out some of the lyrics as “two of the worst lines I’ve ever written.” He then continues to play the track in live shows that followed. And here, it occurred to Bowie to re-record much of his early material, which hadn’t made an impact at the time, and compile it in the album Toy.
He might also have been encouraged by the internet, as he notices fans finding value in every underrated phase of his career. As he explains in a 1999 interview, “I must’ve had 743 singles come out before Space Oddity. And half of them daft as a brush. And the other half – well, there may have been potential, but only so much. Ha! But it’s kinda fun now, actually – I see sites on the internet where they study those areas very intimately. You can see them picking through the peppercorns of my manure pile. Looking for something that might indicate I had a future. They’re few and far between, but they have come up with some nuggets.”
And for Toy, he was combing through his discography, finding those nuggets. But Virgin records disagreed with the plan of releasing the album in 2001, causing Bowie to set up his own label ISO with Columbia Records, shelving Toy, and instead releasing the 2002 record Heathen. Although leaked online in 2011, Toy has now been released as part of Bowie’s latest box set David Bowie 5. Brilliant Adventure (1992 – 2001). The record is also set for stand-alone release on 7 January 2022.
While Let Me Sleep Beside You and Your Turn To Drive were used in his 2014 compilation album Nothing Has Changed, many of the tracks have languished in relative obscurity until now. Songs like I Dig Everything, Karma Man, and Hole In The Ground were all originally recorded by different musicians in different studios. When rerecorded for Toy, the tracks gain a sense of cohesion in their sound and give them a modern twist, recorded by an energetic and upbeat band, fresh off of headlining Glastonbury and bursting with confidence. These include Mark Plati, Sterling Campbell, Gail Ann Dorsey, Earl Slick, Mike Garson, Holly Palmer and Emm Gryner.
Co-produced Mark Plati says about the album, "Toy is like a moment in time captured in an amber of joy, fire and energy. It’s the sound of people happy to be playing music. … From time to time, he used to say ‘Mark, this is our album’ - I think because he knew I was so deeply in the trenches with him on that journey. I’m happy to finally be able to say it now belongs to all of us.”
London Boys certainly lose its chutzpah and personality when rerecorded, but ‘Shadow Man,’ an aching piano ballad, is a stand-out from the rest of the album. Altogether, Toy showcases Bowie’s vocal range and prowess as a musician, and the songwriting offers a glimpse into his younger, less sure days. Sonically, while energetic and grounded in the assurance of a musician who has hours… behind him, there’s nothing especially revelatory about the album. It’s a rejigging of old songs to fresh, modern beats, but not a study in experimentation like only Bowie can deliver. And that’s okay, since it makes for a familiar, fun listening experience, sitting perfectly with the rock n roll vibe of the time.
Aarushi Agrawal is a culture journalist with interest in research, reading, writing, and spending time with her cat.
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