Ugh, again, I apologize for how late this is – this whole Bowie project was supposed to take a month at most, but I haven’t had the time to actually make these posts. I’ve been listening and writing! But everything is on fire right now and I have neglected this blog. Not only am I done with Bowie, I’m done with the next artist and four albums deep into the next artist, so expect a flurry of these. Ok? Where did we leave off. Oh right, the 80’s. Not a pleasant time for Bowie. Let’s
dance jump in.
LET’S DANCE (1983)
I knew going in that this would be an interesting one to write about, since Side A of this album kicks off with three huge hits – including my favorite Bowie track – so naturally I was going to like it. And yeah, hearing them back-to-back-to-back didn’t exactly provide any kind of insight or unique listening experience. The fourth song, “Without You,” didn’t exactly demand or grab my attention, a crashing back down to Earth. What else is there to say about this?
Side B was varied, though it ultimately proved that the album was the top-heavy release that I was expecting. Side A mostly eschews the moderately-uncharacteristic lengthy tracks in favor of more standard pop akin to Scary Monsters. It’s mostly pretty boring, though I really liked “Ricochet.” Also, “Cat People” is a minor classic for a reason. “Shake It” proved to be a decent final track and one that made me realize that Bowie has never really put much focus on closing tracks, something I always find fundamental to albums.
I’m a little surprised at how little I have to say about this one. I always kinda figured this was a key Bowie album based on the triple-punch openers (pun intended). Yet, it just exists, and it feels clear to me why Bowie himself didn’t like this period. It’s also worrying for me, because I know the next few albums are going to be much worse. Oh well. Let’s dive in.
Favorite non-hit track: “Ricochet”
Yep. This isn’t exactly great. For the first time since the beginning of his career, Bowie sounds consumed by, rather than predicting, the state of music. This feels very 80’s in a not complimentary way, a collection of cheesy ballads and synthy noodling. It isn’t bad, at all, it’s just…there.
There are some highs! The opening track “Loving The Alien” is one of Bowie’s best vocal performances to date. It’s a ballad – not a great way to open an album to be honest – that strips away theatrics in favor of performance. It’s a crooning song, something that I feel like is associated with Bowie but rarely actually present. There’s a handful of these tracks across the album, but none as good as this. Also, I really enjoyed “Neighborhood Threat,” which kicks off the back half with the first dose of adrenaline on the album. It’s a genuinely fun song, and seems to have fallen into obscurity within a catalog that hasn’t.
But that’s about it. Six of the album’s nine tracks are forgettable pop fluff, reflective of the times and not ideal relics. It’s clear Bowie was running out of juice. The album’s penultimate song “I Keep Forgettin’” is actively bad, a hokey and cringey song that sounds closer to music made for toddlers than anything else. The fact that it’s also the album’s shortest song is both a relief and an insight into how little ambition there was across recording. There’s nothing remarkable about this album, and diehards may get something to glean from it, but there is very little going on. It’s dull.
I’m going to say that this is the worst one yet, but I know that title is largely reserved for the next album. I’m about to hit a weekend, so I get to treat myself Monday morning.
Favorite non-hit track: “Neighborhood Threat”
NEVER LET ME DOWN (1987)
For the record, I was listening to the version on Spotify listed merely as “2018 Remaster” and I cannot tell if it’s the full-album remix or a slight reworking of the original, due to the platform’s continued and nonsensical war on an audiophile’s reliance on accurate data. Anywho. This album is fine. It’s pretty universally regarded as the worst Bowie album, by critics, biographers and the man himself. I don’t think I would go that far, but I also had my expectations set low because of the reviews. The album was supposed to be a return to rock-and-roll Bowie and by that metric, it’s an abject failure. The record mimics the art-pop of Tonight, a collection of quirky and complex pop tracks that sound closer to livelier Kate Bush or MJ than anything else.
For the most part, the record feels kind of lifeless. It’s not uninspired, like some earlier Bowie, but there isn’t really a whole lot going on, no real statement or character work. Each song individually is fine but the album as a whole feels lackluster. It’s clearly a mess, and unlike some of Bowie’s early slapdash albums, there’s no real excuse. He had the time and energy to do something more but the well ran dry. Every song feels like it borders on being fun and danceable but never quite gets there, more of the disposable pop music he had satirized a decade prior.
That’s the album as a whole. As stated, the quality isn’t due to effort, and there are some good tracks. “Zeroes” and “Glass Spider,” both centering the album’s midpoint, grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. There’s enough cool stuff going on in those songs to make them worthwhile listens. Also “New York’s In Love” is hokey, but it features the best guitar work on a Bowie album in a long while. These songs are all fine, but to call them the best on the album is not complimentary to the rest of the songs.
I don’t think this is the worst Bowie album yet, I’m keeping that with the previous entry. But there is a brutal irony to the album’s title, as Bowie has let us down again. Up next is the Tin Machine duo, something I personally am very excited for as it seems like “me” music – but I will tamper my expectations.
Favorite non-hit track: “Zeroes”
TIN MACHINE (1989)
It’s really funny that people had such strong reactions to this one in any direction. There’s really very little to say about it! A lot of reviews seem to liken it to alternative or even proto-grunge, but to me it’s more of a throwback to bluesy classic rock, released right around the time that “classic rock” became a solidified period of music. It doesn’t really fit the “hard rock” label and it doesn’t really try to, a lot of these reviews are head-scratchers. The album is definitely focused more on volume and vibes than melody, a lot of these songs intentionally eschew any earworm qualities. It’s a proper about-face for a man who was miserable in the pop music he was making.
However, this also means that there’s just very little to grab on to! This album is almost entirely forgettable, the second it’s over. The opener, “Heaven’s In Here,” is a solid rock track and a nice mission statement. The album’s best song is easily “Under the God,” a scathing satirical screed that has the most energy of any song on the album, and feels the most inspired. Otherwise, these are all just pleasantly enjoyable, disposable songs.
I was looking forward to this one despite the bad reviews because it might be something up my alley. It was, but it certainly isn’t an album that left any impression on me. It’s not one that I regret listening to, but I will not be paying a revisit. It’s fine! Time to wash the 80’s stink off of all of this.
Fav non-hit track: “Under the God”
TIN MACHINE II (1991)
I never would’ve guessed that a Bowie album would be so tough to track down! This album is out-of-print and not available on Spotify. Luckily, it’s all up on YouTube, but it is wild that there’s an album so discarded that’s not even in print, less than a decade removed from his commercial peak.
Anyways, this one is a little better than the first iteration, and I’m surprised it’s been so thoroughly retconned. These songs are much more melodic, a marriage of rock and pop made after the whiplash affairs through both. There’s more energy here, and the band feels more locked in. I’m realizing now that Tin Machine exists mostly as a reactionary statement to pop-Bowie, with the man proving he can still hang in the rock crowd. But this album exists because the band simply wants it to – which is a much better incentive for an album.
To say it’s better isn’t entirely complimentary, because the first one really is forgettable. This is not a classic or totally worthy album, but it is solid. There are some good rock earworms, and a lot of sustained momentum through the album’s slightly-too-long runtime. Songs like the opener “Baby Universal,” “A Big Hurt” and “If There Is Something” are just great, energetic rock tunes. They can’t hang with Bowie’s best, of course, but they’re fun and they help this album a ton. Also, “Sorry” is a great, forgotten ballad; Bowie’s vocals on it are astonishing.
Otherwise, this is standard fare pop-rock stuff. Like the first Tin Machine album, this is a little too long when the quality isn’t stellar. A little less would’ve been a little more. But, it’s an improvement over the first, and it makes me a bit sad that the group didn’t live through the proper grunge era. This is a fine album, even if tough to find, but we’re still well in the wake of Bowie’s peak. Back to solo Bowie next. And one more post to wrap everything up.
Fav non-hit track: “If There Is Something”
Thank you to anyone who is borthering these silly little musings on the worst David Bowie albums! This is part of an ongoing series where I’m deep diving into catalogs by artists I either love but don’t know as well as I should, or artists that are just big blind spots. You can check out the previous Bowie entries Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 as well as the foundational post, Zola Jesus.