Essential New Music: David Bowie’s “Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976)”

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Named for a track cut in 1974 that remained in the vaults until the early ’90s, Parlophone’s second multi-disc summary of the late David Bowie’s career could not have been more aptly named. This lavishly packaged box, comprising either 12 CDs or 13 LPs, observes Bowie’s blossoming into a chameleon, ready to shed personae and styles the minute they strangle his artistic needs. It begins trotting out the freshly killed Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane for one last glam thrill, Diamond Dogs. Initially designed to accompany a planned musical stage play of 1984, scotched by the objections of George Orwell’s widow, the stomping, Stonesy rock ‘n’ roll of the title track and hit anthem “Rebel Rebel” served as a fine farewell to platform boots and crimson mullets.

Then Bowie took it on the road, and everything changed. Again. David Live (presented in both original form and in a later remix) documents his transition into Gamble-and-Huff-inspired “plastic soul” via rearrangements of a number of his nuggets for an expanded band including horns and background singers.

They soon rolled into Philly’s Sigma Sound, fleshing out Bowie’s pimp-suited vision across Young Americans (accompanied by an earlier version of the same sessions, The Gouster). Even as the title track and John Lennon-bolstered funk workout “Fame” bring him into the top 40, Bowie’s already showing signs across the Thin White Duke’s entrance on Station To Station and accompanying Live Nassau Coliseum ’76 document that he’s dreaming of Berlin, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. But that’s for the next boxed set.

—Tim Stegall