Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every David Bowie Album (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Let’s Dance (1983, EMI)

A

After years of dwindling commercial success in the U.S. (where he hadn’t had a Top 40 hit since “Golden Years”), Bowie finally decided he’d tired of not having hits and wanted to get on the radio again. Wisely,  Bowie tapped Nile Rodgers – best known at this point as the leader of the disco outfit Chic, though he’d also already written and produced several major hits for Diana Ross (“Upside Down,” “I’m Coming Out”) and Sister Sledge (“We Are Family,” “He’s the Greatest Dancer”) – to produce. Naturally, critics howled with disappointment over the career move, but the album did give Bowie his biggest American success yet and for good reason. It’s simply the most commercially accessible album he’s bothered to make up to this point. That doesn’t mean it’s his best album per se, but it is the easiest of his albums to warm up to provided you’re not already a fan of Bowie’s weirder impulses, and it does have an absolute abundance of extremely catchy songs – perhaps even the catchiest batch of songs that Bowie has written yet. So what if the lyrics are sporadically vapid? (“Shake It” has about as much lyrical depth as you might expect from its title, but it’s a great cut all the same.) These are simply fun, fun songs. The haunting funk of the title cut – one of only two Bowie singles to ever reach Number One – is the most iconic number here, one sporting a Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar solo that still sounds fresh all these decades later, but there are other equally great songs here, including the Iggy Pop co-write “China Girl” and the insistent paranoia of “Modern Love,” arguably the most underrated of all of Bowie’s singles. Its lyrics might be awfully cryptic (it’s certainly never been clear what the heck the chorus has to do with the verse about the paperboy) but the melody and Omar Hakim’s driving drum work on the cut are simply first-rate (as are the multiple sax solos here, each one of them unforgettable), and it’s near-impossible to resist dancing to the cut. Critics like to say that this album is where it all started to go wrong, but don’t believe that for a second. This is still every bit as essential a Bowie album as anything he put out in the ‘70s.

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Tonight (1984, EMI)

C  

A contender for the title of Bowie’s worst album, there are two major problems here. For starters, Bowie’s inexplicably opted out of bringing Nile Rodgers back to produce, instead drafting Hugh Padgham (best known up to this point for his work with Genesis and The Police) and Derek Bramble (a former member of the R&B band Heatwave and the co-writer of the Manhattan Transfer hit “Spice of Life”), both wildly talented men but neither of whom seems to have gelled with Bowie particularly well in the studio. More problematically, Bowie’s clearly been rushed back into the studio by his label before he’s had ample time to prepare quality material, and it’s most obvious by the inclusion of five covers, one of them a dreadful cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and a full three of them covers of songs by Iggy Pop (whose “Tonight” is reworked here as a heavily reggae-flavored duet with Tina Turner, whose talent is totally squandered here.) [Pop also co-writes an additional two songs here and pops up as Bowie’s duet partner on one of those (“Dancing with the Big Boys”).] In fact, of the nine tracks here, there are exactly two new solely-Bowie-penned songs here, and perhaps not surprisingly, they’re also the two best songs here: the masterful “Loving the Alien,” at over seven minutes long and taking nearly two minutes to get to its first chorus, had little chance of becoming a big hit but is an excellent song all the same, while “Blue Jean” is Bowie’s hardest-rocking single in years and as fun as any of the singles from Let’s Dance and goes a very long way towards redeeming the album. Virgin Records’ 1995 CD reissue of the disc improves dramatically on the album by adding an additional three songs, all of them soundtrack contributions by Bowie from the mid-‘80s that are otherwise mildly tricky to find on CD, including the fabulous title cut from Absolute Beginners and the equally great – not to mention haunting – Pat Metheny collaboration “This Is Not America” from The Falcon and the Snowman.  

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Never Let Me Down (1987, EMI)

B

Usually cited by critics as being Bowie’s worst album, it’s a bit inexplicable why this album is so routinely savaged (aside, of course, from that critics never liked Bowie less than when he was a regular presence on American Top 40 stations), as this is arguably a much more likeable and more lovingly-crafted affair than the rush job that was Tonight. For starters, Bowie’s actually bothered to write something more than just two or three songs, and the number of covers has thankfully been limited to just one (“Bang Bang,” yet another Iggy Pop cover). For another, Bowie also noticeably sounds as if he’s both more relaxed and more engaged here than he seemed to be on most of Tonight. Nothing from this disc has popped up on the radio with any regularity in several decades, but there are actually two Top 40 hits here – very, very underrated ones, at that, and the last Top 40 hits Bowie would ever have while he was still alive – in the dance-rock of “Day In-Day Out” and, even better, the extremely lovely soul-pop of the title cut, one of the most criminally overlooked singles in all of Bowie’s catalog. “Zeroes,” “Beat of Your Drum,” “’87 and Cry,” and “Time Will Crawl” are all quite appealing as well, and “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love),” in spite of its infamous rap break from Mickey Rourke, is a surprisingly successful excursion into adult-contemporary-R&B territory (you can almost even imagine the likes of Smokey Robinson or Al Jarreau covering it) that will thoroughly alienate Bowie’s more counter-cultural fans but should delight more pop-oriented listeners. The second side definitely has its padding (and “Too Dizzy” would eventually be removed from later issues of the album entirely), but, still, there's much less filler here than there was on the last record, and if these same eleven songs had been given a less commercial and more off-kilter production, it’s likely the album would be held in much higher esteem than it is by Bowie diehards and music critics alike.

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Tin Machine (1989, EMI)

C

It’s anyone’s guess what triggered the move – it certainly was at least partially due to the savage reviews that Never Let Me Down received – but Bowie closed out the ‘80s by doing a complete about-face, turning his back on Top 40 radio – and even his solo career – and forming a thrash-rock band with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and Hunt and Tony Sales, the former drummer and bassist, respectively, of Todd Rundgren’s former band Runt. The album’s not nearly as Sonic Youth-like as you may have been led to believe (although it definitely delves deeper into that well in the back half of the disc with such noise experiments as “Pretty Thing” and “Video Crimes”), although Gabrels definitely loves his atonal solos and guitar feedback and has a tendency to play like Robert Fripp but without any of the subtlety or nuance. But , Gabrels’ guitar playing aside, the album’s mostly pleasant on the ears. What ultimately sinks it is that Bowie and his band are too overly concerned here with ratcheting up the volume knobs to be bothered with writing any especially memorable melodies, and some of the songs here are downright cringe-inducing, particularly the title cut. There are some moderately-good tunes scattered here and there, namely “I Can’t Read,” “Baby Can Dance,” the pleading “Prisoner of Love,” and the pounding rock of “Bus Stop,” but even those lack the immediate pop hooks of Bowie’s solo material from earlier in the decade, and the album ultimately ends up feeling too insular and self-absorbed to work as a pop album but not nearly interesting or experimental enough to sit alongside – or truly satiate fans of – more art-rock-tinged affairs like Low or “Heroes,” either.   

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Tin Machine II (1991, Victory)

B –  

It was a massive flop commercially in the U.S. (in spite of a very busy promo campaign for the album, one that also saw Bowie making only his second appearance as musical guest on SNL – and his first that wasn’t pre-recorded, ironically!) and remains better known today for the controversy over its album cover than for the music within, but the second and final Tin Machine studio album is actually arguably a lot more listenable and approachable than the first. Gabrels’ guitar playing is still nearly every bit as off-kilter as it was the last time we saw them, but the band as a whole has noticeably placed a greater emphasis on melody this time around, and the songs consequently seem a tad catchier and more radio-friendly, especially “Baby Universal,” “You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Goodbye Mr. Ed,” and, best of all, the straightforward stadium-rock of “One Shot,” which is reminiscent of what Never Let Me Down would have sounded like with more organic and less busy production. [The band also turns in a cover of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something” that’s quite possibly the best of Bowie’s covers since “China Girl.”]  It’s also worth pointing out that the album features Bowie playing saxophone again for the first time in over a decade, which helps to make the disc feel at times like a throwback to his ‘70s work, even if this isn’t nearly as good or as essential a platter as those earlier efforts. Still, why this album received such a critical beating upon its release is a bit head-scratching, and this is one of Bowie’s more underrated albums.

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Black Tie White Noise (1993, Savage)

B

Bowie’s first post-Tin Machine project was nearly just as unpredictable a move as it was for Bowie to have ever put together that band at all. It didn’t exactly return Bowie to commercial prominence – in fact, this album was a common sighting in cut-out bins for several years after its release – and remains one of his lesser-known albums, but Black Tie White Noise – reportedly recorded as a wedding gift for Bowie's wife, Iman – finds Bowie reuniting with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rodgers, a pretty weird move when you consider that this album came out in 1993, by which time Rodgers was fairly out of vogue and not nearly in high demand as he was in the mid-‘80s. Not to say that this album is anywhere near as good as Let’s Dance – Bowie hasn’t brought nearly enough new originals to the table for this album to truly compete with that disc, Black Tie having a fairly sizable number of covers ranging from Scott Walker (“Nite Flights”) and Morrissey (an over-the-top reading of “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”) to a radical reworking of Cream’s “I Feel Free” that turns the song into a full-blown club track. But not since the mid-‘70s has Bowie so successfully channeled his inner soul crooner as he does on this disc, and it’s both impressive and great fun to hear the ever-versatile Bowie immerse himself so deeply into R&B after years of making thrash-rock sides with Tin Machine. The title cut is a duet with Al B. Sure that sounds like an unbelievably bad idea on paper but ends up being surprisingly pleasant and as smooth as silk, and “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” is nearly just as sultry, while “Miracle Goodnight” is a great slice of funk centered around a killer instrumental hook and “The Wedding Song” pulls off the cool trick of being both funky and stirringly pretty at the same time. The album’s first single, “Jump They Say,” is a wildly intriguing cut that bridges Bowie’s past and present, its lyrics hearkening back to “All the Madmen” but its music foreshadowing the heavy club direction that Bowie would move towards for the remainder of the ‘90s. There are no true hits here, but there are plenty of hidden gems to be discovered.    

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1. Outside (1995, Virgin)

A –

Arguably his finest full-length since Let’s Dance, even if it’s not anywhere near as radio-friendly as that record, this disc (which reunites the Thin White Duke with Brian Eno for the first time since the ‘70s and also reunites Bowie with Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson as well) finds Bowie delving heavily into industrial music, the influence of Trent Reznor very much felt here. This concept album only pales in comparison to Bowie’s ‘70s discs from a combination of its length – at seventy-five minutes, it’s at least two songs too long – and the fact that several of the songs are separated by tracks of dialogue that help to advance the storyline and hold the album together conceptually the first time you hear it but don’t exactly make for great repeated listening. But the songs themselves are Bowie’s finest batch of originals in years, particularly “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (a terrible pick for lead-off single, but a great cut all the same), the insistent throbbing of “I’m Deranged,” the fun grooves of “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” the jungle-rock-meets-club-music sound of “Hallo Spaceboy,” and, best of all, the closing cut,
“Strangers When We Meet,” which is considerably softer than anything else here and ends the disc on a surprisingly subdued and straightforward note but is the prettiest song that Bowie has penned since his ‘70s heyday and ranks among his most criminally underrated compositions. Skip the dialogue bits, but give this one a chance.