David Bowie – Toy:Box review: Lost album deserves its rescue

I wish I was a child again,” David Bowie sings on Can’t Help Thinking About Me, the 1966 song that was the first he ever released under his assumed name. That’s a feeling he achieved in spirit on Toy, a “lost” album revisiting his Sixties work that he recorded in 2000, which was leaked online in 2011 and appeared as part of a giant box set of his Nineties work in November last year. It finally gets a standalone release today, the day before what would have been his 75th birthday, with two extra discs of alternative versions.

Toy’s concept was surprising for an artist who had spent the previous decade pushing forwards. Bowie had experimented with industrial sounds and drum and bass on Earthling in 1997, and released the first big album that could be downloaded on the internet, ‘hours…’, in 1999. But that same year he was also revisiting his oldies (including Can’t Help Thinking About Me) for an episode of VH1 Storytellers, and in the summer of 2000 he was romping through his greatest hits in a now legendary Glastonbury headline set. He was ahead of his time again with the plan for Toy – meant to be a surprise release in the manner that Radiohead, Beyoncé and this week, The Weeknd, have managed since – but the music was pure nostalgia while financial and scheduling problems at his label, Virgin EMI, meant that it never saw daylight.

Not long after that Glastonbury appearance he brought his tight live band to a New York studio to record spontaneous, muscular reworkings of some of his earliest material. It starts with I Dig Everything, a swinging period piece that had a jaunty Tony Hatch production in 1966, but here is a stomping rocker. You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving, recorded in 1965 by Davy Jones & The Lower 3rd, was freaky psychedelia, previously included on the cult Nuggets compilations of psych-rock, but now has a more straightforward energy.

It’s fascinating to hear Bowie the confident superstar going back to songs written when his success was far from assured. On Conversation Piece, the forgotten B-side to his breakthrough, Space Oddity, he insists: “I’m invisible and dumb/And no-one will recall me.” Talking to Uncut magazine about this period in 1999, he said: “I must’ve had 743 singles come out before Space Oddity, and half of them daft as a brush.” The other half aren’t half bad, though, and plenty of them are here on an obscurity that deserves its rescue.

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