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.
Often, critics and fans consider Scary Monsters to be the last “great” album of David Bowie’s classic period. And while it is quite true that the last record would prove to be the end of an era, the next release in Bowie’s discography is a certainly a noteworthy piece of work as well.
1983’s Let’s Dance is typically looked upon as the beginning of an overwhelmingly commercial period in Bowie’s career and, although it wasn’t necessarily a conventional pop record at the time, this is a rightful distinction. To date, this is still Bowie’s best selling collection of material, and while this is surely a well-deserved achievement for the singer, it did prove to also be detrimental to much of his work throughout the remainder of the 80s.
Even though Let’s Dance was the spark that ignited a much maligned era for Bowie’s career, it is still easy to see why these songs came to be so commercially successful. As a whole, the record hits quickly and mostly effectively with a grand total of eight songs comprising its track list.
Beginning the album is a steady stream of what would become some of Bowie’s most popular mainstream hits. The dance beats, spoken intro, and endearing pop sensibilities of “Modern Love” immediately set the tone for the direction of the album. These qualities are carried on through the album’s other singles “China Girl,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Without You.”
“Let’s Dance” is a fantastic, anthemic number with a particularly great build-up in the chorus; “China Girl,” while perhaps somewhat overrated, features a magnificent performance from Bowie, and it offers an interesting counterpoint to the version recorded by Iggy Pop in 1977. “Without You” is probably the one single that isn’t remembered as vividly as the preceding hits, and that’s a bit of a pity. Sure, it might not be the most immediately-accessible moment on the album, but in terms of musical performance, it might be the most moving song among its seven counterparts, with the possible exception of the title track.
Though the remaining four tracks weren’t considered as single material (with the exception of “Cat People” which was released as a single a year earlier before being re-recorded for this album), there are some gems to be uncovered in these deeper album cuts. The album’s one cover song, “Criminal World,” stands as a particularly stand-out track with masterful guitar work by Stevie Ray Vaughn and a sultry vocal performance from the singer himself. Having the distinction of being the single bleakest moments on the record “Cat People” is a brilliant and bleak rocker, and, although its social commentary isn’t fully realized, “Ricochet” remains an interesting stylistic effort.
Let’s Dance isn’t without its faults though. Perhaps it’s an easily arguable point, but one could make the assertion that many of the tracks presented here, although well-crafted, don’t feel like Bowie songs. It’s a difficult point to articulate, but there’s an intangible feeling throughout this album that seems makes the whole affair seem detached from most of the artist’s previous works.
This album was recorded without some of Bowie’s long-time collaborators including producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Carlos Alomar. Instead, the record was co-produced by Nile Rodgers, and, as previously mentioned, Stevie Ray Vaughn was brought in as the principal guitarist. Maybe it is due to these changes in personnel that the record feels somewhat foreign.
Oh yeah. Then there’s the closing song, “Shake It.”
It’s not an easy assertion for a Bowie fan to make, but this song is dreadful. Bowie’s vocal performance isn’t bad, and nor are the instrumental parts really. The main issue here is that, with the Bee Gees-esque backing vocals and dopey lyrics, it seems to be a pandering attempt to cater to established dance music/disco conventions. What’s more unfortunate is that the sound of this track is sort of an indication of things to come… but we’ll get to that later.
Aside from these debatable flaws, Let’s Dance is actually quite a well made record. Granted, when compared to his previous work, it is distinctively slicker and perhaps over-produced, but if the listener can accept those aspects of the framework, the album makes for a rewarding listen. Well, mostly.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Modern Love,” “Let’s Dance,” “Cat People,” Without You,” “Criminal World”
A Very Bowie Moment: “And when I get excited, my little china girl says, ‘Oh baby, just you shut your mouth’” – “China Girl”
Best Edition: There isn’t much in the way of extra material on this one. Any edition you can track down will work.
Let’s Dance was the record that began David Bowie’s so-called “commercial” period. Tonight was most likely where the popular resentment for this period originated.
Considering the enormous success of the last album, it might be expected that a singer might stick to this formula to continue on a successful path. But this is David Bowie. Shouldn’t his audience expect innovation and exploration in to unchartered terrain? Yes, David Bowie fans should. But the reality is that after Let’s Dance, the artist acquired a larger audience who were, most likely, less interested in subversive material. Bowie was now a mainstream artist, and 1984’s Tonight clearly shows that this isn’t a mold he operates especially well in.
Looking at the songs and the songwriting credits on the album sleeve is a bit perplexing in itself. If one is familiar with Iggy Pop’s work, and specifically his collaborations with Bowie, it will quickly become apparent that much of this material is brought back for a reinterpretation. In fact, there are few songs that actually constitute newly written material to be found here. There are only four out of the nine entries on the track list to be exact. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. After all, Pin Ups was all covers, and that was at least a fun record.
But here’s where the main problem comes in. Bowie sounds bored. Tonight was a record produced immediately following the Serious Moonlight tour that promoted Let’s Dance, and it’s easy to tell. The singer sounds like he’s tired. It’s as if he’s in the vocal booth to simply lay down his tracks and get out of there, and thus, there aren’t very many emotionally powerful moments here.
With that being said, there are still some shining moments to be found in this otherwise dull record. “Loving the Alien” is easily the best track on the album and in a disproportionate kind of way. This song is what begins Tonight and aside from its thought-provoking lyrics and haunting vocal delivery, it simply seems out of place. By comparison, the rest of the songs seem rather shallow.
But if one could look past that distracting facet, other highlights do lie ahead. “Blue Jean” is an honestly fun song, even though it does somehow feel vaguely contrived to fit along side previous singles around the time like “Modern Love.” “Don’t Look Down” also stands out with a sort of reggae-style that manages to sound like it could be played at a lonely, dreary bar late at night.
The remaining songs aren’t all necessarily bad either. While “Tonight” sounds like a mindless attempt to cash in on an easily accessible pop melody with a guest appearance by the popular act of Tina Turner, it can be somewhat enjoyable if you can get past its needlessness. And Bowie’s cover of “God Only Knows” is well-performed and it does come off fairly effectively. Effectively in the same sense that Frank Sinatra’s performance of George Harrison’s “Something” was effective. Well, no. Maybe it’s not quite that unnatural.
What can be said about the rest of the album? Nothing really. Everything else is just plain forgettable and not worthy of much discussion. After just listening to the record, it’s somewhat difficult to distinguish between some of the songs that come later in the running order.
One other track that should be addressed is “Dancing with the Big Boys.” Admittedly, it’s difficult to imagine what’s in store with a song carrying that title, and fittingly, it’s equally confusing after hearing it.
To demonstrate the kind of lyrics in this song, here’s a brief excerpt:
“Death to the trees,
They weren’t bad, they weren’t brave,
Nothing is embarrassing.”
(That last line could be debated.)
“There are too many people, too much belief,
Where there’s trouble there’s poetry,
Your family is a football team.”
As one might surmise, the song, performed with Iggy Pop joining in on vocal duties, is apparently some kind of attempt at social commentary, but it’s impossible to interpret why or how.
Tonight is an album that can only be recommended to die-hard fans of Bowie, and even then, it’s not a very strong recommendation. Sure, it does have its better moments, but even the so-called highlights of Tonight pale in comparison to material released just a few years prior to this recording.
If you’re only looking to hear the best moments from this release, just download “Loving the Alien” and call it quits.
My Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Loving the Alien,” “Blue Jean,” “Don’t Look Down”
A Very Bowie Moment: Can you find one? I sure as hell can’t.
Best Edition: The 1995 Virgin Records edition has the nice addition of “This is not America,” “As the World Falls Down,” and “Absolute Beginners.”