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.
Never Let Me Down
When last we left Mr. Bowie, he had released the enormously successful Let’s Dance album with promising results. The follow-up, Tonight, was… not quite as promising. Would Bowie make a drastic shift in his musical direction and regain his status as innovative rock icon, or would he continue along his downward spiral?
The answer lies, well, somewhere in between. Never Let Me Down was Bowie’s next album that found its way to store shelves in April of 1987. Rather than deliberately staying with the formula set by the looming Let’s Dance album, this new effort was delivered with a claim to be a return to a more basic rock and roll format. A claim that only somewhat proved to be accurate.
With an amalgamation musical influences, over-the-top production, largely unrealized aspirations of grandeur, and guest appearances by Peter Frampton on lead guitar throughout the album and, to a lesser extent, Mickey Rourke (yes, that Mickey Rourke) in a mid-song rap on “Shining Star,” Never Let Me Down basically boils down to a mess of stereotypical 80s pop trash. But with all of that being said, there are actually some rare moments on here where that works as a benefit.
If nothing else, Bowie actually sounds like he’s invested in the material he’s working on here, unlike the bored-sounding deliver found on his previous album. The problem is that many of the ideas attempted here seem more contrived and diluted rather than honest.
For instance, “Day-In, Day-Out,” the album’s lead track and first single, is a bleak portrayal of poverty, homelessness, and even prostitution, but although the song’s ambitions can be appreciated, the execution isn’t convincing. It’s as if Bowie thought he ought to write a song on this topic, but didn’t have the means or interest to actually accomplish that.
The other glaring example is in the mid-album cut “Glass Spider.” Beginning with a laughably melodramatic spoken introduction, the song’s purpose is cloudy if not unintelligible. Sadly, the remainder is simply an achingly clunky attempt at a Diamond Dogs-esque rocker.
In truth, much of this record leaves plenty to be desired. There are, however, moments of honestly well-written material to be unearthed here. “Zeroes,” although not terrific, is an enjoyable and arguably exciting pop tune, and “Time Will Crawl” holds one of the best crafted melodies and Bowie performances within this collection of songs.
But the real highlight of the whole album comes in the album’s title track. At first listen, “Never Let Me Down” may seem like any of the other cheesy pop/rock songs that littered the 80s, and to be fair, that’s an understandable interpretation. What makes this song endearing is its desperation and honesty in both the lyrics and in Bowie’s unique vocal performance. In effect, this is really the (relatively) stripped-down sort of entry that this album needed more of.
As the record reaches its end, what is there to say about Never Let Me Down? Well, it’s loud, clunky, disjointed, chaotic, and all-around sort of headache-inducing. Simply put, it’s a mess. But by the same token, it’s a mess with some shining moments (and incidentally, “Shining Star” is indeed one of them).
It can’t be said that these moments save the record. They don’t. But at the very least they show some signs that Bowie’s identity hasn’t been entirely lost to the commercial machine.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Highlights: “Time Will Crawl,” “Never Let Me Down,” “Zeroes,” “Shining Star (Making My Love)”
A Very Bowie Moment: I saw a black black stream, Full of white-eyed fish, And a drowning man, With no eyes at all” – “Time Will Crawl”
Best Edition: This one’s a bit tricky. I would recommend the 1995 Virgin Records release over all of them as it contains two surprisingly good b-sides “Julie” and “Girls,” as well as the brilliant soundtrack cut “When the Wind Blows.” However, it should be said that most of the CD releases (with a few exceptions) omit the original inclusion of a song called “Too Dizzy.” Is it worth seeking out? Not really. It isn’t half bad actually, but it’s fairly typical of the rest of the NLMD material. Only advisable for completist fanatics (such as myself).
Tin Machine (I & II)
The 80s for David Bowie, for the most part, were a strange time. Having gone from being a subversive rocker to a contributor to contemporary disco/dance music to a star lost somewhere in his own rapid rise to fame, it would have been impossible to predict the artist’s next move.
As a reaction to the over-produced years of musical impact of the monstrous Let’s Dance album, Bowie took a step back and tried (again) to head back to a more gritty and basic rock and roll style. And so, after finding a musical ally in guitarist Reeves Gabrels, as well as with drummer Hunt Sales and bassist Tony Sales, former backing-musicians for Iggy Pop, Tin Machine was born.
As a part of this retrospective series, the two albums of Tin Machine’s sort-lived career are a questionable inclusion. Of course, they are part of Bowie’s extensive catalog, but they aren’t solo albums as such. They are instead a reportedly democratic result of all four of the band members at large, and yet, even though they aren’t “Bowie albums” per se, they do warrant discussion as they certainly play an important role in the singer’s musical direction in the following years.
The studio albums released under the moniker of Tin Machine are titled, simply enough, Tin Machine and Tin Machine II, and appropriately, the two records do feel like they are part one and two of the same piece of work.
Overall, the songs are much more earnest and down-to-Earth than the sorts of entries in Bowie’s past few albums. Gone is the excess and pop-splendor of “Blue Jean” or “Never Let Me Down,” and standing in its place is the hard rock/punk edge of “Under the God” and the first album’s title track. This is surely a welcomed change of pace coming out such a commercially-oriented phase, but aside from these comparisons, does the Tin Machine-era hold up on its own?
Well, it does have some things working in its favor. In a way, the band was ahead of its time with its focus on stripped-down musicianship and aesthetics that would be agreeable with the soon-to-come wave of grunge rockers. And of course, there are some memorable songs off of each of these albums, though perhaps less so with Tin Machine II.
“Heaven’s in Here” is a fun, progressive rocker with a riff that is oddly reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Revolution;” “Under the God” is an especially lively track; “I Can’t Read” is a weirdly powerful almost-ballad, and “Goodbye, Mr. Ed” is impactful as one of the rare sentimental-sounding songs the group developed.
Conversely, there are plenty of things to be nitpicked here. For instance, some songs just don’t work. Examples that come to mind are the cover of “Working Class Hero,” “Shopping for Girls,” and, hell, most of the second album’s not all that great. Additionally, the lyrics tend to be somewhat disappointing. Consider this portion of “Crack City”:
“Corrupt with shaky visions
And crack and coke and alcohol
They’re just a bunch of assholes
With buttholes for their brains”
Surely that speaks for itself.
But the main complaint to be had with these records is simply that they are mostly forgettable. The band clearly worked hard to produce these songs and convey them in an honest form, and it sounds like it, but aside from a few highlights, many of the ideas never really take off.
Could it be that Tin Machine is simply difficult for a Bowie fan to fully appreciate because he isn’t the one driving creative force? It’s quite possible. In that way, these records could be recommendable to the right crowd, but that recommendation comes with a caveat that they might take more than a listen or two to fully appreciate.
And, perhaps most importantly, one should bear in mind that David Bowie as a solo artist and Tin Machine are indeed two very different beasts.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Heaven’s in Here,” “Under the God,” “I Can’t Read”
Tin Machine II
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Baby Universal,” “You Belong in Rock and Roll,” “Goodbye Mr. Ed”