Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rock Bottom: David Bowie

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

* * *

This one was a surprise. Like many children of the '80s, my first David Bowie love was, for better or worse, the film Labyrinth. During my musical-sponge phase, my dad gave me some old of his old Musician magazines. One of them featured a cover story on Bowie's 1987 album, Never Let Me Down. That, along with a full-page ad featuring the carnivalesque album cover, prompted me to seek it out. It was my first Bowie album, and I loved it.

But guess what? In my research for this very feature, I discovered that it is unequivocally the most hated Bowie album by fans and critics.

At the time of its release, Rolling Stone critic Steve Pond said Never Let Me Down "may well be the noisiest, sloppiest Bowie album ever." Later, he labels the record a "mess" and says it "...doesn't bode well for Bowie's present, or his future." All Music Guide reviewer Steven Thomas Erlewine is terse and non-specific, describes the album as "a jumbled mix of loud guitar rockers and art rock experiments."

Bowie fans on Amazon.com don't bother to pull their punches. In a review of 1984's similarly unloved Tonight, Cary S. Ashby says the album is "not quite the turd of Bowie's fine recording catalog that Never Let Me Down is...". Gustave O. Frey, oddly states: "This album is at times too cocky for my taste and the music sometimes degenerates into the work of baboons." And someone identified anonymously as A Customer tells us that Never Let Me Down is " ...easily forgettable unless you're a Phil Collins or Chris de Burgh fan" (those unfamiliar with rock snob shorthand should know that's an insult).

And you knew it was coming: Even Bowie himself dismissed the record, telling Charlie Rose: "My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I've gotten to a place now where I'm not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it's in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it's a failure artistically, it doesn't bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it."

Ouch.

And this is my favorite Bowie album? I could hide behind a couple of defenses: 1) subjectivity (yes, Virginia, people can have differing opinions) or 2) ignorance (I didn't know I was supposed to hate it). But I am feeling slightly feisty, so I'm going to prove here unequivocally that Never Let Me Down is in fact a worthwhile, top-tier record, despite what the critics, the fans, and Bowie himself might believe.

Seven Reasons Why Never Let Me Down is NOT the worst Bowie album.

1) Messes are fascinating.
First, is Never Let Me Down a mess? Pond says it is, because it "shifts jarringly from one style to another." Well, what's your definition of the word "mess"? To me, it indicates a lack of planning or vision. In the aforementioned Musician interview (August 1987 issue) Bowie admits: "In this particular album...there is no continuity. That was the intention." He says the album represents the many different styles of music he enjoys. So, if it's a mess, it's an intentional one. Further, while the stylistic variation sometimes prevents a cohesive listening experience, it also makes for an interesting one, from the R & B stylings of Shining Star (Making My Love) and Day-In Day-Out to the guitar rock of New York's in Love to the folk-pop of the title track. That's what happens with great artists like Bowie; when they really try, they never completely fail.

2) Bowie gave it his all.
Listening to these songs, there's no doubt they were created with care and passion. Bowie never sounds bored; in fact it's quite the opposite. His vocal performances throughout are passionate and lived-in, especially on songs like New York's in Love and (again) the title track. And the band? They're blazing, with Peter Frampton (yes, you read right; he and Bowie actually went to school together) playing a spritely lead guitar on many tracks. I don't think any album where an artist really puts effort in can be considered the worst.

3) There's a thin line between nostalgia and being "dated."
Think about the difference between a vintage 1976 KISS Destroyer world tour t-shirt and a 1998 KISS Psycho Circus world tour t-shirt. Both, at this point, are "dated", but one is inherently cooler than the other. Thanks to the rise of the synthesizer and drum machine, albums from the '80s often get accused of sounding "dated." Really, it's only a problem when the production techniques distract from otherwise good songs.

In any case, I don't agree with the "dated production" criticism leveled at Never Let Me Down. Okay, yes, if you name a song '87 and Cry, it's literally dated, but there are so many styles and sounds on the album, it's almost impossible to pinpoint it to a certain era. There's a sitar and harmonica that recall the '60s, horns and funky bass that recall the R & B of the '70s, etc. The songs are full, and built to be played live, which is the opposite of the canned '80s sound the "dated" assertions bring to mind.

4) Pretentious is as pretentious does.
Accusations of pretension have dogged Bowie, mostly because there's often a detachment in both his personal and artistic personas. Pretentious means "exaggerated importance or status." Isn't that in the rock star job description? As a fair-minded Amazon.com reviewer named Dean Dirge points out, "Bowie always has his tongue in his cheek. He acknowledges the artifice of his chosen art form. I don't think he took many of his other albums any more seriously than he took this one."

5) Bowie has changed his tune.
In the Musician interview Bowie is quite pleased with the album. He calls it "energetic and up" and seems to quite enjoy talking about the songwriting and recording process. He says he can't wait to get out and play the songs on tour. They don't sound like the words or tone of a man who has just created the worst work of his career. So what changed? Was he just faking it in the interview?

I suspect something else. In the introduction to the interview, writer Scott Isler mentions how Bowie is a canny interviewee who "invariably agrees with opinions." Wouldn't it follow then that Bowie's own current views of Never Let Me Down are shaped by the reaction of the fans and critics? It's kind of sad if you think about it that way.

6) The songs are pretty good!
An album simply can't be considered an artist's worst when it contains one of his best songs. In this case it's Never Let Me Down. It's a gentle and heartfelt love song, and Bowie even acknowledges that it was "pivotal" in his songwriting and that it was written from a very personal place. Zeroes is similarly lucid and nostalgic, looking back at his ascension to rock star royalty.

Other songs are in the more typically detached, abstract Bowie style, such as the creepy one two punch of Beat of Your Drum and Time Will Crawl. Plus there's a well-chosen cover of Iggy Pop's Bang Bang that closes out the album. There's also a "lost" Bowie song called Too Dizzy that appears on the vinyl but was removed for various CD releases; a very rare move. Listening to it, there's no apparent reason as to why it was singled out, creating an instant curiosity for any hardcore fan.

7) He's made worse albums.
Consider, these alternatives: 1984's Tonight is a close second for most reviled Bowie album, featuring two reggae-flavored tunes, a Tina Turner duet (which is nowhere as cool as it sounds), a bad-idea crooner version of the Beach Boys' God Only Knows, a rockabilly cover of a song made popular by Michael McDonald (I Keep Forgettin'), and an overall sense of ennui. The songs Loving The Alien and Blue Jean were all that could be salvaged. Great album cover though.

There's also Tin Machine I or II, from 1989 and 1991 respectively, wherein Bowie forms a band and sings tuneless, unmemorable "hard rock" songs.

* * *

Never Let Me Down is not a perfect album. The sequencing could be better; with one too many samey sounding rock songs weighing down the end of side two and all of the really diverse songs coming early. A couple of songs aspire to "jam" but are really just too long. And, yes, Mickey Rourke "raps" on Shining Star (Making My Love). But I still love the album, despite these faults. Maybe my one good ear is made of tin, or maybe, just maybe, the fans and critics got it wrong this time.

Authors Note: This is album review #187.

7 comments:

DDay said...

Paul, I couldn't agree with you more. 'Never Let Me Down' was also my first album encounter with Bowie, and I've never stopped liking it. Admittedly, it's a little pompous at times, but that worked well enough for anything Prince released around the same time, right?
I haven't listened back to it in probably more then 10 years but reading out the titles brings back all the melodies and choruses. This was a time when I only had a handful of CDs (and I'm sure my copy includes Too Dizzy), so those repeated listens had the songs jammed into my brain. Just from memory, my favorites would be 'Never Let Me Down', 'Zeroes' and 'Shining Star', but I'll just have to pull it out again and give it another spin.
Thanks for reminding me!

Mike A said...

A very good article, I have always thought that the criticism is harsh but in general late-80s pop is not very strong so I don't think that Never Let Me Down was any worse than other music of the time.

So if David Bowie didn't exist before Let's Dance, Never Let Me Down wouldn't get half the derision levelled at it. It's a shame that Bowie wasn't able to match Let's Dance later in the 80s but I still listen to the music he made in that time.

Unknown said...

Great article! I like N.L.M.D.! I bought it when it came out. I worked in a supermarket and we listened to it shelving at night after the customers left. For a few months it was in heavy rotation. That plus the Joshua Tree and the Cure's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. I'm a huge Bowie fan and I know that a lot of people stop at Lodger. But I'll listen to Tonight and this album. Yes, a lot of it is nostalgia, but Day-in-Day-Out is great, great video too! Black Tie White Noise is the worst. I paid full price for it when I was kinda broke and was really pissed. I listened to it over and over again hoping (like Lodger) that I'd get into it eventually. No, total crap.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks god I come to find this review, I was starting to feel odd because I'm listening this album almost every day and I was starting to think that I was the only one who liked the album. My favourite cut is "Zeroes", I think is such a beautiful song, with the Sitar and the fabulous ending. The rest of the tracks that I enjoy are NLMD, Glass Spider, Shinning Star, 87' n cry and Bang Bang.
I also own Tonight, and i like the same as NLMD, Specially Loving the Alien, Neighbourhood Threat and Dancing With the big boys, I also like Tumble and Twirl.

By the way, "Too Dizzy" was scrapped from subsequent editions because was Bowie's less favourite track of the Album.

mugwump said...

Couldn't agree with you more. Compare this album to "Black Tie White Noise", "Tin Machine II", or other bowie albums no one ever listened to or mentions. Watch Bowie sing "Sorrow" in 1973 and tell me that it is a better effort than ones off Never Let Me Down.
First of all, it was the final Bowie album ever heard on the radio. Second of all, at the time of release it was his biggest selling album in his career. It's hard to explain, but that year when it came out this album felt note perfect. Granted it seems dated now, but I don't find myself listening to "Pin Ups" either. I'm not sure I have sat through an entire playback of Pin Ups, yet this album was on repeat for quite a while.