Clareville Grove is an interesting collector’s item.
The steady clearing of the vaults that has taken place since David Bowie’s passing in 2016 has had an interesting effect in how one considers the shapeshifting superstar, as recent archival releases have shone a light on eras of the man’s work previously not considered in much critical discussion. Sure, most Bowie fans know the glam years or the Berlin trilogy exceedingly well at this point, but what of his post-sellout period in the late ‘80s? Or his dalliances with film scores? Or, most especially, the period of Bowie’s career when he was still figuring out what he was going to be? Clareville Grove Demos is a selection from that era, recorded when the newly-christened David Bowie was trying on whatever he could in an effort to stand out in a crowded music scene. The songs featured here are far more collaborative in nature than one would expect, but it’s still possible to see glimpses of the star Bowie would become.
Perhaps the most jarring experience with listening to the Clareville Grove Demos set is the first song, in which one hears the familiar opening chords of “Space Oddity” and those inimitable vocals come in—except they don’t. As Bowie was still in a band at this point in his career, the demos prominently feature John “Hutch” Hutchinson, Bowie’s bandmate with whom he was living at the time. Thus, it’s Hutch who takes lead vocals on “Space Oddity” and a few more songs in the set while Bowie harmonizes in the background. It’s a novelty to hear Bowie as something of a secondary participant on some of these songs, but even then, his vocal stylings are so unique that it’s impossible for him not to overshadow Hutch, whose pleasant vocals were kind of a dime a dozen in 1967. Hutch’s vocals simply lack that otherworldly quality, a fact emphasized by this collection’s rendition of “An Occasional Dream” in which Bowie, taking the lead, turns a breakup song into something ever so slightly weirder. At times, Clareville Grove hints at Bowie’s future, even within the modest setting of a handful of home recordings.
Having said that, it’s difficult to get around the fact that this period of Bowie’s career was an artistically slight one. His dabblings in folk and psychedelia were never highly regarded when they received commercial release, and nothing about Clareville Grove’s glimpse into the process of creating these songs will likely change the perception of Bowie being kind of a bandwagoner at this stage in his career. Aside from “Space Oddity” and—if one is being really generous—”An Occasional Dream,” none of these compositions stand out in Bowie’s massive catalog. Songs like “Ching-a-Ling” and “Lover to the Dawn” (an early version of Space Oddity’s “Cygnet Committee”) feel very much of their time. Even the quite beautiful cover “Life Is a Circus” comes across as too much of a pastiche, its vocal harmonies recalling Simon & Garfunkel more than anything else. Bowie ended up abandoning the folkier aspects of his music very quickly, and when one listens to Clareville Grove, it’s hard not to argue that he made the right choice.
Still, curiosities like these have a place in the heart of die-hard fans, and the more collaborative dynamic of these recordings could make Clareville Grove an interesting collector’s item. However, when taking into account the wider scale of David Bowie’s career, the collection registers as little more than a blip, a strange moment in time when the man of many personas and identities couldn’t quite figure out who he was.