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Album 108 I Toy (Box Set) (2021)

The best thing about Toy is that it allows me to believe that I’m not so much in the tank for Bowie that I convinced myself to like anything he put out. Since I first heard a bootleg version, I’ve never liked it. Now, after having purchased an officially released three-disc box set version…I still don’t like it.

The basic conceit of Toy is that at age 53, Bowie revisited some of his very earliest songs, from the 1960s, before he was famous. Embarrassingly, Bowie couldn’t get his then-label, EMI/Virgin to release the album. But Bowie recorded some totally new songs during the course of the project, some of which ended up being used on Heathen (2002). Those original songs were the best things to come out of the Toy sessions and were the best songs on the old bootleg version I originally heard. Heathen is a great record, but all traces of it are gone from the version of Toy that was eventually, posthumously released more than two decades after it was recorded. What’s left are “new” recordings of some very old songs that didn’t make Bowie famous the first time around, were ignored by Rikodisc when that company released Bowie’s back catalogue on CD around 1990 and were mostly abandoned by Bowie himself for more than 30 years. The reason for all that is that the songs just are not very good.

My opinion actually took a turn for the worse after listening to the box set. I listened to the 60s versions of some of these songs relatively recently which makes the change in Bowie’s voice stand out all the more. Bowie made the most of his evolved, deeper voice in his new songs on Heathen and what came after, but these old songs were not created for that voice. Despite being a mere 53, Bowie sounds old and tried on Toy.

The album art cover doesn’t help— I find Bowie’s adult face superimposed on a baby picture to be disturbing. It serves as a visual reminder that there’s a mismatch between the product of young-Bowie’s mind and older Bowie’s voice.

The other downside of the box set is that the second and third discs are essentially bonus discs featuring slightly different versions of the same songs that appeared on the first disc. There are a handful of genuine additions which, along with some of the original versions of songs that later appeared on Heathen might have made for a value-added bonus disc, but there is zero value added by listing to “Shadow Man,” “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” and “Silly Boy Blue” three times in short order.

Are there any redeeming features in this version of Toy? Yes. First and foremost is that one “new” song survived— “Toy (Your Turn to Dive),” which was omitted from Heathen. While not one of Bowie’s best songs, it’s far and away the best song on Toy and a reminder that Bowie had come a long way. Also included is “Conversation Piece,” which has its origins in the sessions for the album that has come to be known as Space Oddity. Bowie had already made the leap from experimenting teenager to artist-with-staying-power by 1969, when he wrote this particular song, and it holds up. Also included is a new version of the first song Bowie recorded — “Liza Jane.” It’s a simple, derivative blues-style song that Bowie, still David Jones, recorded all the way back in 1964. Precisely because of its simplicity and lack of pretense, it’s actually not a bad song.

Finally, had Bowie been alive, the Toy box set would have almost certainly been named, A Box of Toys, but whoever was responsible for its release did not share Bowie’s sense of humor. Too bad. Which is also what I can say about the album as a whole.

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Note: I have previously commented on two other versions of Toy, but consider this three-disc set to be distinctive enough to be considered on its own.

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