David Bowie Retrospective Series – Part 7: We are the Goon Squad and We’re Coming to Town

In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the latest 2013 release.

Lodger

David Bowie’s Low and “Heroes” certainly have their share of differences, but as two entries in what has become popularly known as a trilogy, they do have an essential thread of similarity running between them. That thread is run pretty thin, if it’s even there, when we reach Lodger, the final entry in the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” (though this album was recorded in Montreux, Switzerland).

Whereas the two previous albums did have a structural and tonal theme of containing half pop/rock songs and half instrumental songs, this formula is unmistakably gone from 1979’s Lodger. Sure, Brian Eno is still credited as co-writing most of the material here, but without any ambient material to be found, his influence isn’t as apparent as in the other entries in this era.

So, the Lodger album is clearly the oddity in the three Berlin-era Bowie albums, but does that make it a poor album? Well, no it doesn’t. As I mentioned, the instrumental half is not manifested on this album, but the two halves of the record do contain their own distinct themes. The first half of the album is a sort of travel journal of the titular lodger character, and the second half is a bit more wide-ranging, but it mainly centers on depictions of western civilization.

Lodger begins, appropriately, with “Fantastic Voyage,” a song not about physical travel exactly, but perhaps about the sense of travel, discovery, and learning through modern life, which is a good synopsis of the album as a whole. One particular highlight, and the first true travelogue-esque piece, of the album’s first half comes in with “African Night Flight,” a sort of tribal-sounding song that brings back the manic delivery from Low and “Heroes.”

The second side of the record begins strongly with a string of single releases including “D.J.,” a particularly memorable track about, well, DJs, the polished rock longing of “Look Back in Anger,” and the sloppy garage rock of “Boys Keep Swinging.”

Following in the wake of the three-way blast of singles is “Repetition,” the story of Johnny, a coldly abusive working-class man. “Johnny is a man, and he’s bigger than her, I guess the bruises won’t show, if she wears long sleeves, but the space in her eyes shows through,” Bowie sings with a cold detachment that actually makes the character study more potent.

“Red Money” serves as the album’s finale, and fittingly so. Set against the same instrumental backing of “Sister Midnight,” a Bowie/Alomar-penned song recorded by Iggy Pop during this period, Bowie brings the final closure to the “Berlin Trilogy”. “Project cancelled,” he sings in the chorus.

Lodger is certainly the one album that stands apart in this trilogy of albums, but as such, it is kind of a breath of fresh air to be given a more traditional pop-oriented album.

With that being said however, does it stand as a great album like Low and “Heroes”? Yes and no. While this record does have a lot of well-constructed songs, the travelogue aspect doesn’t seem fully-realized, and overall, the album doesn’t have quite as much cohesion as the two previous endeavors did. But it should be said that the stylistic choices on Lodger do make for quite an interesting and easily-digestible ten songs to listen to.

It might not be Bowie’s greatest album, sure. But, especially if you take it out of the context of being from the “Berlin Trilogy,” it remains a strong record with plenty to appreciate, and it is perhaps one of Bowie’s most accessible albums of this era.

My Rating: 4 out of 5
Highlights: “Fantastic Voyage,” “African Night Flight,” “D.J.,” “Look Back in Anger,” “Boys Keep Swinging,” “Repetition”
A Very Bowie Moment: “Boys Keep Swinging” in its entirety
Best Edition: The 1991 Rykodisc/EMI reissue is worth it for the non-album “I Pray Ole” and the 1988 reworking of “Look Back in Anger”

Scary Monsters

I’m going to be blunt. For most of these albums, I can discuss them without bringing myself into things. I cannot do the same with this album. It’s not because I think it is David Bowie’s greatest album ever or even his worst; it’s because I can’t help but feel it’s overrated.

Before you raise your pitchforks in disgust, let me just say that I don’t think 1980’s Scary Monsters is a bad album by any means. In fact, it is quite good, and it certainly does have some great singles and some great ideas working in its favor. But whereas most critics tend to give this album wide acclaim as one of Bowie’s finest albums, I think there are some flaws that hold it back from achieving this designation.

The first half of the album is phenomenal, that much is certain. Beginning with the frantic opener “It’s No Game (Part One),” an unforgettable first impression is made. In between spoken passages from a Japanese guest vocalist, Michi Hirota, Bowie shrieks his lines as if they were being recorded while the singer passed a kidney stone outside of the vocal booth. There’s a mental image I wish I never addressed.

Things continue with a string of strong cuts in “Up the Hill Backwards” and the vicious “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” until we reach the two best-known songs from Scary Monsters. “Ashes to Ashes” probably stands as the most recognizable track off of the album and with good reason. Bringing back the Major Tom character from the early days of “Space Oddity,” “Ashes to Ashes” is a guitar synth-laden single with a stunning lead and backing vocal delivery, wonderful imagery, and an unforgettable music video from the early MTV days. To follow is “Fashion,” another one of the album’s immediately accessible songs. Perhaps more of an instantly radio-friendly song than its immediate predecessor, it’s easy to see how the funk-driven piece ended up being released as a single.

The second side of Scary Monsters is where I start to see more flaws being exposed. As I said, this record as some great moments and ideas that it’s working with, and that is still apparent in these later songs on the album. “Teenage Wildlife” and “Scream Like a Baby” in particular are very provocative tracks that arguably contain some of the best lyrics written within these 10 songs.

So what’s the problem? To be honest, these songs need a bit more of that accessibility that was in the first half of the record. That isn’t to say that each track needs to be an entirely polished, single-ready song, but there needs to be an identifiable point of entry in these pieces so that the audience can appreciate what they have to offer. While I mentioned that I admire the lyrics and the construction of “Teenage Wildlife” and “Scream Like a Baby,” I would even be hard pressed to try to hum a line of either one of these songs, unless it was from the chorus section.

Moreover, some songs on this latter half are kind of nonstarters. “Kingdom Come” in particular never seems to really take off as a memorable moment, and although “Because You’re Young” does come off as an earnestly crafted song, it too stands as one of the more forgettable moments on Scary Monsters.

I’ll concede that I seem to be a minority in my opinions on this record, and that’s fine, but this review wouldn’t be entirely honest if I didn’t point out these arguable flaws. Perhaps other Bowie fans see something in this collection of material that I have yet to discover. Perhaps if the album were sequenced differently so as to spread out the poppier material more evenly throughout the tracklist, I would be more enthusiastic about it. It’s entirely possible.

For what it’s worth, I recognize the moments of inspired greatness and the uniquely bleak tone on Scary Monsters, but frankly, I would sooner reach for Ziggy Stardust or Station to Station if I wanted to listen to a Bowie masterpiece.

To me, this release represents a collection of great moments rather than an overall great and cohesive album. Not the best album in Bowie’s catalog, but an essential addition to any record collection regardless.

My Rating: 4 out of 5
Highlights: “It’s No Game (Parts One and Two),” “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps),” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion,” “Teenage Wildife,” “Scream Like a Baby”
A Very Bowie Moment: “She asked me to stay and I stole her room, She asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind, Now she’s stupid in the streets and she can’t socialize, Well I love the little girl and I’ll love her till the day she dies” – “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”
Best Edition: Rykodisc again is recommended for its 1992 release of non-album tracks such as “Crystal Japan,” the Brecht “Alabama Song,” and 1979 reworkings of “Space Oddity” and “Panic in Detroit”

~ Stephen

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