‘Nothing Has Changed’: Searching for a Self in David Bowie’s 50 Years of Transformation

When David Bowie looks in the mirror, as he does in the cover art for his career-spanning new three-disc compilation, what does he see? And when David Bowie claims that “nothing has changed,” as he does in the title of that collection, what could he possibly mean? Obsessively as we analyze any beloved artist’s body of work, we don’t usually ask questions like this about a best-of album — even one as idiosyncratic as Nothing Has Changed. They tend to be cash-ins at worst and artless at best, package deals designed for casual listeners who don’t respect the album as an art form and just want all the “hits” in one place.

But if there’s one thing Bowie doesn’t need any more of, it’s money — which goes a long way towards explaining both the strangeness and the ambition of Nothing Has Changed. Like the David Bowie Is… exhibition that’s currently touring the world, that exhibition’s companion documentary, and the Bowie: Object book that was announced four years ago but still hasn’t materialized, this compilation seems to have come out of Bowie’s recent preoccupation with archiving. It marks the 50-year anniversary of his first recording, and its hand-curated feel isn’t just the result of its reverse-chronological sequencing, opening with the new single “Sue (Or a Season in Crime)” and slowly closing in on that first song, “Liza Jane,” released under the name Davie Jones and the King Bees when he was just 17.

As Chris O’Leary (whose song-by-song analysis project, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, has made him one of the world’s foremost experts on the Bowie canon) explains, Nothing Has Changed is full of conspicuously odd inclusions and exclusions:

Ziggy gets dispatched in three songs (as many as …hours gets), The “Berlin” albums get one song apiece (there as many songs from the Toy sessions). Tin Machine gets written out (as, essentially, does Reeves Gabrels: the …hours singles are mixes that excised much of Gabrels’ guitar work; “Hallo Spaceboy” is the Pet Shop Boys remix, etc). There’s no “John I’m Only Dancing” or “Holy Holy,” no “Station to Station” or “Quicksand.” But “Silly Boy Blue” is there, as is the gawky “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving.”

Certainly, it’s also bizarre to see The Man Who Sold the World’s contribution limited to its title song when Bowie devotes a full 18-track disc to his work since 1995 (especially when you consider that he spent half of that period dormant), or to think that he considers his supremely silly ’80s “Dancing in the Street” duet with Mick Jagger a highlight. But it’s those surprises that make Nothing Has Changed a purposefully assembled time capsule rather than just a mirror of what critics have praised and listeners have purchased over the years, the kind of playlist any fan could make for herself, given five free minutes and a well-stocked iTunes library. This compilation is, in all its imperfections, an act of personal canon creation — a privilege that Bowie has earned several times over, as music’s still-unrivaled champion self-mythologizer.

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Along with the other highlight reels that have appeared in various media over the past few years, Nothing Has Changed (despite only including one new song) brings one form of closure to a project that Bowie began years ago and pursued in earnest on his last album, The Next Day. It’s been a cliché for decades now that he is a cultural chameleon — both in that he frequently changes aesthetics and because he so often takes inspiration from other subcultures and sounds, from cabaret to krautrock. But for much of that time, I think, he’s been mining his own history for proof of a core self.

What’s unfair about Bowie’s reputation is that it implies a complete transformation — a total break from the past — each time, the bisexual alien with his outsize rock riffs subsumed entirely by the coke-snarfing plastic soul practitioner in his suit and tie, then detoxed and reborn in Berlin, with leather jacket and synthesizers and best buds Iggy and Eno, only to reemerge in the ’80s with a disconcertingly healthy glow, for a brief stint as one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Of course, constant evolution is in itself an identity — one that, I’d argue, makes Bowie a futurist more than a chameleon. From the Velvet Underground’s influence on Hunky Dory and the avant-garde cadre he assembled near the Wall to his Earthling-era association with Trent Reznor (among other ’90s electronic and alternative musicians) and enthusiastic mid-’00s Arcade Fire co-sign, he’s always learned from and collaborated with artists who not only capture the zeitgeist but push it forward.

But even that reframing of Bowie’s career sells short the consistency of the ideas — if not the sounds — that have characterized his work over the decades. It’s not even true that he gave up on androgyny and bisexuality as themes post-Ziggy: see also, just for a start, “Boys Keep Swinging” (1979), “Buddha of Suburbia” (1993), and “Hallo Spaceboy” (1995).

It’s curious to think that just about all of his major themes appear in some form on his first big hit, “Space Oddity.” Obviously, there’s outer space in all its remoteness and chaos and unknowability — a motif that went poetic in “Life on Mars?,” then sci-fi with Ziggy Stardust and Bowie’s starring role in The Man Who Fell to Earth, then sonic on Low. As recently as The Next Day, space has reappeared as a metaphor for the celebrity culture that now hovers close enough to everyday life to scorch us (“The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”) and, again, a place where we disappear into oblivion (“Dancing Out in Space”).

A bit deeper into “Space Oddity,” we get Bowie’s particular slant on love. There’s a whole novel of doomed romance in the lines, “Tell my wife I love her very much/ ‘She knows,'” uttered as Major Tom drifts ever farther from Earth. Since then, so many of Bowie’s most memorable songs have taken a similar view of love, one that’s as ephemeral and fragile and apocalyptic as it is temporarily all-consuming: “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” “Absolute Beginners,” the Queen collaboration “Under Pressure” (all of which made the Nothing Has Changed cut).

Both outer space and fleeting, star-crossed love are facets of Bowie’s primary obsession: mortality, manifested both as death itself and in the fear and knowledge of growing older. In as early a song as “The Width of a Circle,” the fantasy epic that opens 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World (and is, sadly, left off Nothing Has Changed), 23-year-old Bowie sings that “a rumor spread that I was aging fast.” Ziggy Stardust is the record of a compressed life cycle that ends in suicide; the Jacques Brel-like “Time” (also omitted from Nothing Has Changed) on Aladdin Sane is a stark, terrifying glare into the hourglass of mortality; and Bowie also covered Brel’s own “La Mort” — most famously in the performance where he “killed off” the Ziggy character.

On the Berlin albums — limited, as O’Leary notes, to one fairly unrepresentative hit apiece on this compilation — mortality is less a literal concern than a sense of time expanding and contracting, even on the many instrumental tracks. Songs like “Sons of the Silent Age,” from “Heroes”, and Lodger‘s “Look Back in Anger” have a sort of existentialist aesthetic, and a mournfulness, about them. Low‘s first side is a pile-up — “Always Crashing in the Same Car” may even be a quasi-Buddhist pile-up of discrete lives — and its second side is a release (but to what?). An obsession with time is almost always, on some level, an obsession with time running out. Scattered through each of these albums are markers of years passing, and experiments with duration.

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Beginning in the ’80s, though, Bowie adopted another method of marking time: looking back at his own history, perhaps as a way to shape his legacy for the future. His self-referential, and sometimes self-revisionist, tradition begins in earnest on “Ashes to Ashes” (which, thankfully, is included on Nothing Has Changed). It’s incredible to think, now, that only 11 years passed between its release and that of the song it references, “Space Oddity” — a period approximately equivalent to the wait between 2003’s Reality and its follow-up, The Next Day, but one during which Bowie released 12 albums, more than half of them classics. A jaded update to the wide-eyed maybe-tragedy that made Bowie famous, “Ashes to Ashes” reduces Major Tom to a heroin addict, “strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low.” Again, though Bowie was only 33 when the single was released, there’s the sense of time running out, in panicked thoughts — from an astronaut, no less — of a life never fully lived: “I’ve never done good things / I’ve never done bad things / I never did anything out of the blue.”

Since then, Bowie has revived “Space Oddity” fairly frequently: “Buddha of Suburbia” quotes its most recognizable riff (along with the lyric “Zane, zane, zane, ouvre le chien,” from the Man Who Sold the World song “All the Madmen”), and the Pet Shop Boys remix of “Hallo Spaceboy” includes the line, “Ground to Major, bye bye Tom.” (Both appear on Nothing Has Changed.) The intro to the music video for “Never Let Me Down” (1987) repeats “Put on your red shoes” from “Let’s Dance” (1983). If you were to listen to Bowie’s entire catalog straight through, along with all the videos, I’m certain you would find dozens — if not hundreds — of those tiny references.

All of this was leading up to The Next Day, an album whose cover re-appropriated the art from “Heroes” and that heralded a perhaps-final, compulsively self-referencing Bowie persona which Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking named “meta-Bowie”:

[I]f you’re a Bowie nerd or even just a casual fan, it’s great fun to play “spot the meta reference” throughout: there’s the fact that the outro of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” xeroxes the drum intro of Ziggy Stardust‘s “Five Years”; the echoes of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps track “Teenage Wildlife” in “Dirty Boys”; the traces of “Fame” in “Love Is Lost.”

It is also meta-Bowie, a largely curatorial persona, who has taken on (or outsourced, or provided the material for) all of these recent archival projects — a man who is, evidently, just as obsessed with mortality as ever, and quite a bit closer to it at 67 than he was at 23 or 33. Nothing Has Changed (while also a lyric from his song “Sunday,” off of Heathen) is what Bowie sees in the mirror that pervades its artwork, looking back at half a century of his own work, insisting that his art and his identity within it have been more consistent during that time than we think. The reflection isn’t quite what we, the fans and the critics and everyone else out there who’s painted a lightning bolt over one eye, see in David Bowie. But despite — or, more to the point, because of — its idiosyncrasies, it still merits a closer look.