We conclude our journey back into the depths of David Bowie’s musical career with his work that brought him the most popularity and commercial success and his increasing difficulty staying both relevant and artistically interesting.
To quote The Wrestler, “Nineties sucked.”
Something I didn’t mention about the Berlin Trilogy is that none of those albums were particularly good at making money, which is what this is all about, if you want to get cynical. As David Bowie entered the 1980s, it sure does seem like he shifted his focus to getting more fans and becoming bigger than ever. He was successful, but I find a lot of his latter-day albums less interesting for it. Fortunately, Scary Monsters actually has a lot going for it – I’d say it’s even better than his previous album, Lodger. It’s sort of a step backwards, as Bowie moves out of the frontier toward a more conventional rock sound, but it’s a good sound. Some critics have called this album a landmark, which it might be, it certainly is one worth hearing, which is not something you’ll be hearing me say that much longer.
Favorite Tracks: “Up the Hill Backwards,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Teenage Wildlife”
See, now David Bowie was really starting to get the appeal of megastardom. He put out “Under Pressure” shortly after Scary Monster came out, and when he decided to head into the studio for the next album, I have to think he was focused on making some hit singles. Let’s Dance was recorded in just over two weeks, and Bowie doesn’t actually play any instruments on the album. Someone who does play on the album, however, is the fairly unknown at the time Stevie Ray Vaughan, so that’s neat. And as dismissive as I’m acting about this album, it’s actually pretty cool. The combination of blues guitar rock and dance music is neat, and this album comes out on a tear with its three best songs leading off. After those three, I wouldn’t call any of the other songs bad, I mean, the rerecording “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” is sweet. But the reality is, this is the beginning of Bowie’s songwriting slump, as he put it himself, with all his new fans, “I suddenly felt very apart from my audience. And it was depressing, because I didn’t know what they wanted.” Let’s Dance would go on to be his best selling album.
Favorite Tracks: “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” “Let’s Dance”
What’s it like being a professional musician? To be called upon, apart from the touring, promotion, and everything else, to put together usually less than an hour of sound every two or so years that can mean everything to all your fans? By 1984, David Bowie had released 15 albums in 17 years. His 16th, Tonight, saw him begin the most unfortunate stage in any musician’s career: the boring part. The skippable part. The forgettable part. The one I worry a lot of my favorite bands are in right now. Despite the massive success of Let’s Dance, or perhaps because of it, Bowie was not emboldened to pursue a new sonic direction. He just stayed the course, and aside from “Blue Jean,” it’s pretty unremarkable.
Favorite Tracks: “Loving The Alien,” “Blue Jean,” “I Keep Forgettin'”
This is such a weird era to write about because, despite Bowie being in a creative rut, despite the music basically going in one ear and out the other, I wouldn’t call it bad; just unremarkable. I miss Bowie’s creativity. As he goes forward, a lot of what I hear is music that imitates other artists of the time, or, in some cases, himself. This is the most intensely Eighties Bowie ever sounded, which perhaps is kind of fun on a song like “Beat of Your Drum,” but not enough to make me peer pressure people into listening to Never Let Me Down. However, I do think there are a couple songs that are maybe worth checking out, particularly “Time Will Crawl” and the title track, which, surprisingly, isn’t a total letdown.
Favorite Tracks: “Day-In Day-Out,” “Time Will Crawl,” “Never Let Me Down”
To escape the terror of the Eighties, David Bowie did a brief sojourn in Tin Machine, some stupid band that I won’t talk about again outside of this sentence. He also got married to supermodel Iman and moved to LA just in time for the Rodney King riots. So he set out to write music about racial harmony and shit, including an “Ebony and Ivory” inspired duet with Al B. Sure! I’ll give you this, Black Tie White Noise is intensely contemporary, a shocking artifact of a time when popular artists did electronic dance music that would make today’s electronic club music violently ill. Which is kind of cool, since this came out during the days of grunge, a genre you’d think (correctly) that Bowie could not resist.
Favorite Tracks: Mehhhhhh
Well, you know, at least he was trying. Outside brings Brian Eno back into the picture, as he and Bowie try to somehow recapture the magic of their Berlin days. If Bowie’s problem with Let’s Dance was that it won him too many fans, his work in the Nineties had the opposite problem: I can’t imagine anyone hearing this stuff and thinking, “I need to check out more of this David Bowie guy.” Outside is darker and weirder and, for me at least, altogether harder to get into than his earlier work. Apparently this is a concept album, but I have no real sense of what the story is and what the whole thing is about. Outside very much sounds like David Bowie by way of Nine Inch Nails, which is not a band I hate, but not one I particularly want to listen to either. It’s fucking long too. Really, at least he’s trying.
Favorite Tracks: “Hallo Spaceboy,” “We Prick You,” “Strangers When We Meet”
At this point, I have to remind you again how much I respect David Bowie. How many artists can keep changing, evolving, trying new things, for 30 years? As much as I have one quintessential David Bowie sound in my mind, for many of his fans, that sound, the appeal of his music, is totally different. And, though I really have realized that by this point in his career his best album is behind him, not ahead of him, there just aren’t that many people who can keep it going like Bowie can. Earthling is his foray into techno, having not really set the world on fire with whatever Outside was. It’s a little successful and a lot jarring when the album opens with crazy fast, Matrix action scene-esque drums. Remember when music was all about drum samples and deep bass? Earthling remembers.
Favorite Tracks: “Little Wonder,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” “I’m Afraid of Americans”
Well, that was weird. After a few intense, dark, loud albums, ‘Hours…’ is a light, almost gentle affair. It makes this album perhaps among the most skippable in the entire Bowie discography, but, if you listen to all of them in order, like I did, there’s something comforting about ‘Hours…’ that makes it, I don’t know, feel like a treat, I guess. I think if I played “Thursday’s Child” for someone who didn’t know what was up, they’d think it was the lamest thing ever. But in context, with an appreciation for Bowie’s early work and everything that he had put out in the last decade, it’s kind of nice. As the album goes on, that appeal wears away, but that first jolt is quite soothing, like easing into a warm bath.
Favorite Tracks: “Thursday’s Child,” “Something in the Air,” “Seven”
Heathen is actually pretty cool. I know I told you guys that pretty much everything after Let’s Dance is skippable, but if you wanted a taste of really latter-day Bowie, this is the one I would recommend. After messing with digital music production for a while, this is the first album that really feels like Bowie has turned modern techniques and sounds into his own thing. “Sunday,” the first song on the album, has this cool, jittery guitar loop that I absolutely love, and there are plenty of other neat touches that follow. This was in production both before and after 9/11, and there’s something about this album that seems to resonate that time in our country’s history. It’s a textured, beautiful record that I remembered liking long ago, and was impressed to find I still enjoy today.
Favorite Tracks: “Sunday,” “Slip Away,” “Slow Burn”
Reality works for the same reasons that Heathen did, although not quite as well. I read the AllMusic review and liked particularly the reviewer’s idea that Heathen was a modern take on Bowie’s work in the late Seventies, and Reality is more focused on the later years of that decade. Maybe that’s why I like the previous album more, or maybe it’s just because that was the first one with the new Bowie sound. What doesn’t help is that Reality would go on to be marked by Bowie suffering a heart attack while on tour and beginning the longest lull in his entire career. In the past 10 years, Bowie has kept busy by doing the occasional backup vocals and one-off concert. He’s kept acting, of course. That all changed with an update on Bowie’s website earlier this year, and the release of The Next Day a few weeks ago. I can’t wait to finally listen to and write about it, but that’ll have to wait for another day.
Favorite Tracks: “Pablo Picasso,” “Looking for Water,” “Reality”