David Bowie: Divine Symmetry review – Hunky Dory box set shows an artist’s ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

We tend to think of 1971’s Hunky Dory as the moment David Bowie finally snapped into focus after years of dead ends and false starts. It opens with a song often seen as his mission statement, Changes, with its promise of constant forward motion and undertaking to make pop weird again. It unveiled the brand of glam rock that would send his career stratospheric, on Queen Bitch, and his most celebrated backing band, soon to be renamed the Spiders From Mars. It features a succession of his most indelible songs – Life on Mars?, Oh! You Pretty Things – and, in its lyrics, the preoccupations that would fuel his career through the 1970s: sexuality and gender, imminent apocalypse, artifice and role-playing, the peculiar and disturbing ideas about mysticism and the occult that would reappear on Station to Station. Here, at last, was the David Bowie who knew exactly what he was doing, who was no longer pretending to be a hippy, or a proponent of “heavy” music, or an Anthony Newley-ish all-round entertainer; the Bowie who would so confidently cut through the coming decade that pop music and youth culture were both changed in his wake.

The truth, as revealed by Divine Symmetry – a beautifully packaged 4CD box set subtitled An Alternative Journey Through Hunky Dory – appears to have been substantially less straightforward than that. The first CD of demos presents us with an artist still firing out songs in all directions, including the middle of the road. One minute he’s channelling the Velvet Underground or daringly capturing the cruisey atmosphere of London’s gay scene on Looking for a Friend, the next he’s knocking out an oompah song intended for Tom Jones (How Lucky You Are). Songs of the depth and mystery of Quicksand rub shoulders with stuff that harks back to his eponymous 1967 debut album – the protagonist of the jaunty Right On Mother, delighted that his mum likes his fiancee, would fit right in with Uncle Arthur and the Little Bombadier.

Some of the less familiar songs are substantially more interesting for what they became than what they are. Tired Of My Life is a mopey acoustic strum, nothing special until halfway through when it unexpectedly turns into It’s No Game, the opening track from 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. King of the City initially sounds naggingly, maddeningly familiar. Thirty seconds in, when Bowie’s voice takes on a more anguished tone, it suddenly becomes clear: it’s Ashes to Ashes, almost a decade too early.

While it’s fascinating that Bowie was still dipping into these songs for inspiration nine years later, the overall impression is not of a laser-focused artist who’s finally worked out what he wants to achieve and how to achieve it. That impression is compounded elsewhere on Divine Symmetry by the lo-fi recording of a show at Aylesbury’s Friars club in September 1971. It was a gig that provoked some lurid advance publicity – “It is more than likely that David Bowie will be appearing entirely in female clothing” – and subsequently gained a reputation as an epochal event. But Bowie sounds nervous, timid, eager to please; embarrassed by his past (“We get this over with as soon as possible,” he sighs before Space Oddity) but uncertain where he should head next. He plays Queen Bitch and Changes but he’s still not above trying to court a hippy audience (a cover of Biff Rose’s Buzz the Fuzz is full of Furry Freak Brothers gags about LSD and being busted by the man) and is still playing his sexuality for laughs.

It’s entertaining but offers no suggestion whatsoever that this is the artist who, within months, would be on Top of the Pops, his arm slung around Mick Ronson’s neck, imperiously pointing down the camera, announcing the arrival of a new decade even more emphatically than his old frenemy Marc Bolan had the year before.

Divine Symmetry is packed out with radio sessions and alternative mixes that are sometimes intriguing and sometimes make you wonder how many versions of David Bowie singing Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam a person needs to hear. What emerges is a talented writer grasping uncertainly for a new direction, wildly throwing ideas against the wall and shaping an album out of the ones that stuck.

There’s something curiously refreshing about that. The posthumous Bowie industry has done an impressive job of turning a complex, flawed, brilliant but mercurial artist into an unimpeachable genius who was always right about everything. It has created a fantasy world in which even the cover of Little Drummer Boy he recorded with Bing Crosby – a single Bowie hated so much, its release spurred him to leave his record label – is worth celebrating with a commemorative T-shirt. In which a 140-minute documentary can be made that tactfully neglects to mention anything wrongheaded that might besmirch the legend. It’s a wilful distortion that makes Bowie seem perfect, and thus more boring than he actually was. With all its flaws, Divine Symmetry redresses the balance, just a little.

This week Alexis listened to:

The Summerisle Six - This Is Something
The pleasure of reading other people’s best-of-the-year lists and finding something you missed: in this case, glorious chugging electro-pop from DJ Sean Johnston.