So Bowie sold out. Really, what else could he do? Selling out was the thing to do in the ’80s, and Bowie was always one to stay on top of current trends. Of course, he had to have it his own way, drafting Nile Rodgers as producer, enlisting Stevie Ray Vaughan as the lead guitarist, and making a hit out of an old Iggy Pop collaboration (that would be the only slightly cringe-inducing “China Girl”). And of course, some of the songs had to kick ass. “Modern Love” is as exciting an opener as any in Bowie’s catalog, and the title track was a deservedly huge hit, an addictive slice of disco-funk that sounds like it was recorded in an exceptionally trebly cathedral. The rest of the album is carried along by the momentum of the three singles, not just in terms of quality but stylistically as well, which means that this is essentially a party album through and through. It may be the one case where all the “style over substance” claims lobbed at Bowie ring true, but it’s still one hell of a style. Fuck art — let’s dance.
Apparently running out of ways to surprise his audience, Bowie decided to try failing miserably. This isn’t terrible as far as mainstream ’80s pop goes, but by Bowie’s usually high standards, it’s a complete misfire. Supposedly he didn’t even want to record this album, and it shows: more than half of the album’s songs are attempts to get Iggy Pop more royalty money, leaving two genuinely good singles (“Loving the Alien” and “Blue Jean”) and two lame-ass covers that make a valid case for manually removing and eating one’s own eardrums. I suppose there’s some decent stuff among the Iggy numbers, provided you’re comfortable with a barely-audible Tina Turner, an overzealous horn section, and a full-time marimba player. Welcome to the ’80s, Bowie fans. Welcome to hell.
Well, the good news about this album is Bowie’s back to writing songs again. The bad news? He thought those songs needed drum machines. Really loud drum machines. Hell, why not make everything deafeningly loud? Loud guitars, loud ’80s keyboards, loud, loud, loud. This entire album sounds like it was drowned to death in a bathtub full of digital reverb. Luckily for the faithful, the songs themselves aren’t all bad and the lyrics are dark as hell. “Time Will Crawl” is the one bona fide classic here, a paranoid nuclear war rant with some genuinely unsettling lyrical imagery (and a horrendously stupid video, but let’s not dwell on that). Elsewhere, “Bang Bang” exhumes the spirit of Iggy once more, “’87 And Cry” predicts the loud rock of Tin Machine and “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” sets some seriously depressing lyrics to the most incongruously bouncy, happy music of David’s career. The latter track also features David Bowie and Mickey Rourke (!) “rapping.” I suppose this counts as “experimentation.” Look, it’s a late-’80s mainstream pop album, not some indelible work of art. Bowie had a mullet around this time and I’m okay with that. Are you?
Shaking the cobwebs off his artistic credibility, Bowie decided to form a hard rock band that owed as much to the Pixies as his work with Iggy Pop. In fact, it was Iggy Pop’s rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales who formed the rhythmic backbone of the group, while Bowie discovery Reeves Gabrels provided the avant-metal lead guitar skronk. Admittedly the results are kind of one-note, but if you have any kind of fondness for straight-up hard rock there may be a place in your heart for this one. Plus, Bowie’s artsy tendencies were slowly creeping back to life, as evidenced by the eerie, detuned grind of “I Can’t Read,” the first genuinely scary song Bowie had written in almost a decade. Other highlights include “Heaven’s in Here,” the Adrian Belew-ish “Amazing,” and the surprisingly melodic closer,Â “Baby Can Dance.” If any complaint can be lodged against the album, it’s that the lyrics, as refreshingly blunt as they are, are among the clumsiest Bowie’s ever written, and the production is almost too chaotic to give these songs their fair due. Gotta give him points for trying, though.
Though it helped restore his artistic cred to an extent, Tin Machine was also very, very unpopular. This album has been out of print and relegated to bargain-basement hell for a while now, and even people who defended the first album tend to gloss over it. Ingrates, the lot of them. There’s material here that easily outclasses anything on the first album, and while the worst stuff is pretty atrocious (more on that in a second), the best of it earns it a spot as Bowie’s most underrated effort. In fact, one could say this is the most overtly Bowie-ish album he’d done in a while, with lead-off track “Baby Universal” sounding like a conscious throwback to his ’70s rockers. Elsewhere, “Shopping for Girls” has the best riff on the album and some very dark lyrics about underage prostitution, while “Amlapura” and “Goodbye Mr. Ed” show a surprisingly dreamy, subdued side to the band. My personal favorite is “One Shot,” though the fact that it was once deemed the Most Boring Bowie Song Ever doesn’t exactly help my case. Of course, there are those atrocious moments I alluded to earlier, both of which involve drummer Hunt Sales taking a turn at the mic. He’s not a completely terrible singer, but he sure as hell ain’t a songwriter, especially when compared to … well, David Bowie. It’s like finding a generic Hallmark card in a book of Leonard Cohen poetry, for God’s sakes. Nevertheless, I stand by this as my pick for Bowie’s most underrated effort. He’s done far better, but you could pick out much worse.
It’s amazing what falling in love can do for a person. One year you’re in a foundering hard rock band, writing stream-of-consciousness lyrics and insisting that you’re going back to your roots, and the next you’re back with the producer that gave you the biggest hit of your career. By gum, it’s like Tin Machine never happened! Still, Bowie sounds refreshingly happy on this one, which at least counters those usual claims of insincerity that get thrown his way. The material, however, is something of a mixed bag. Instrumentals “Pallas Athena” and “Looking For Lester” are disconcertingly cheesy, the title track is an unforgivably goopy duet with Al B. Sure!, and the abundance of early-’90s R&B keyboards dates everything considerably. Nevertheless, there are highlights. “Jump They Say” is a slick, club-ready single that hides a powerful anti-suicide message, while “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” is a wonderfully, ludicrously over-the-top cover of a Morrissey song, one he actually wrote as a tribute to Bowie himself (ha!). The album also features guest spots from Mike Garson and an ailing Mick Ronson, their return adding to the general feeling of optimism and goodwill.
Though it’s since been reissued, this was once the holy grail for Bowie fans: an obscure, perpetually out-of-print soundtrack to a BBC miniseries that featured some of Bowie’s best, least image-conscious material in ages. I’m not gonna be one to argue, though I will add that the mix is as flat as a pancake. Nevertheless, it’s definitely a treat to hear Bowie simply experimenting again, something he can’t claim to have done over the length of an album since Lodger. Several Eno-inspired instrumentals pop up, as well as an almost-instrumental vamp based on Bowie mumbling through a voice processor (“Sex and the Church,” easily one of the slinkiest, sexiest songs he’s ever done). There are some bona fide pop gems here too, from the self-referencing title track through to the manic disco-rock of “Dead Against It,” which sounds like a decent Pet Shop Boys song until the absolutely gorgeous guitar interplay kicks in and takes it to a whole other level. Though it’s one of Bowie’s humbler efforts, this album gave many fans cause for celebration: at long last, he was letting his muse run wild again.
Finally, a late-period Bowie album that can’t be damned with faint praise! Any pretense of objectivity flies out the window in the face of this thing, an inscrutable hour-long concept album (technically, its full title is 1. Outside) that revolves around the ritual murder of a 14-year-old girl, with the industrial-tinged backing music edited together from a weeks’ worth of improvs masterminded by Bowie and returning collaborator Brian Eno. If this already sounds like something that’ll send you running away screaming or slapping your forehead in embarrassment, you may want to stay away. But let me tell you something: I’ve gotten more people into Bowie with this album alone than anything else in his catalog, and a lot of these were people who already had a distinct anti-Bowie bias. The delicious irony here is that, like Buddha Of Suburbia, it sounds like Bowie’s happy just being himself again, albeit a dark, fucked-up self we hadn’t seen since he last worked with Brian Eno. A lot of people point out how much of this album is influenced by Nine Inch Nails, which is true to an extent (“The Hearts Filthy Lesson” and “Hallo Spaceboy” both give Trent Reznor a good run for his money), but one can also detect traces of late-period Scott Walker (“The Motel”), King Crimson (“The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction”), and even the burgeoning jungle scene that would inspire his next album (“We Prick You” and “I’m Deranged”). On top of that, the album closes out with two majestic pop songs, the soaring “Thru These Architect’s Eyes” and a reworking of The Buddha of Suburbia‘s “Strangers When We Meet” that utterly demolishes the original. After an albums’ worth of gloom and doom, it’s a welcome relief. Nevertheless, this was precisely the kind of difficult, unsettling work that a lot of fans were hoping Bowie still had in him, and on that merit alone, it demands your full attention.
Though not quite in the same league as Outside, Earthling still shows Bowie in fighting form. The gimmick here is that he’s gone electronica on us, gravitating mainly towards the jungle/drum-and-bass axis of things. Naturally, a couple of the overly-mechanical numbers sound suspiciously like so much trendy filler, but the actual songs are pretty much aces.Â “Dead Man Walking” nicks the riff to “The Supermen” and strands it in a robot jungle, “Looking for Satellites” is suitably spacey, and Outside leftover “I’m Afraid of Americans” has probably the best hook on the album (all together now: uh-uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh-uh), not to mention the some bitingly sarcastic, genuinely funny lyrics. Detractors of the album tend to point out that the manic arrangements distract from the actual songs, whereas others argue that the arrangements are the most innovative aspect of the whole thing. Certainly, Reeves Gabrels’s squalling guitar has never sounded more at home than here, although even that can be construed as a drawback. Look, I’m gonna rephrase an earlier point to put it in perspective: Bowie was 50 years old and had gelled, spiky, bright-orange hair around this time. I, personally, am okay with this. Are you?
Well, apparently that hairstyle didn’t go over too well. This is Bowie trying to pass himself off as a regular guy with mixed results. Certainly, this isn’t the return to Hunky Dory that all the prerelease hype suggested, though it’s not a complete write-off either. If anything, this is one of the most low-key, downright neutral-sounding albums Bowie’s ever done. If Bowie albums were people, this would be the vaguely dissatisfied middle-aged friend who you go for coffee with every coupla months, and always at the same place. It’s that kind of album. Of course, my view of it is biased from having heard live versions of every song that inevitably knock the stuffing out of the originals, leading me to believe that this album’s relative blandness has more to do with the production than the actual songwriting. Then again, “Something in the Air” has the line “Abracadoo / I lose you,” so maybe that’s just the state-enforced medication talking. It’s not all drowsiness and downers, though: “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” is the first no-frills riff-rocker Bowie had penned since Tin Machine, andÂ “The Dreamers” does develop a pretty strong pulse as soon as the drums kick in. Otherwise, it’s all lush keyboards, dreamy-sounding guitars, tasteful drum loops in the background, and GOD THE NEXT ALBUM DOES THIS SO MUCH BETTER SO LET’S JUST TALK ABOUT THAT INSTEAD.
More middle-aged grumbling, but now with a slight spiritual bent and, perhaps more crucially, absolutely stunning production. Tony Visconti’s back! Hi, Tony! We missed you! Yes indeed, this is the warmest, fullest, richest, most atmospheric production Bowie’s had in ages. Then of course there are the songs, which are … quite good, actually. There’s a reason this was near-unanimously hailed as Bowie’s triumphant return to form, and that reason is that Outside was too divisive to engender any kind of mass sympathy. Wait, no. Sorry. It’s because this was his most thoughtful, well-crafted, emotionally affecting release since Visconti was snubbed some 20 years previously. Though the reckless experimentalism of some of his ’90s work was refreshing, there’s something to be said for an album that seems to have made with a lot of effort and careful consideration, the kind that draws on years of experience instead of making yet another clear break with the past. Accordingly, this is around the time Bowie seemed to have made peace with himself and his legacy, and this album reflects that emotional maturity not only in its lyrical content but the way it seems to be a hodgepodge of all the styles Bowie’s flirted with over the years. The key here is that it’s all done subtly, without any kind of obvious nod to one specific era — it just sounds like Bowie, straight up. Since anything on the second half counts as a highlight in my book, here’s the mournful, beautifulÂ “Heathen (The Rays),” which closes the album, and the deceptively happy-sounding eulogy of “Everyone Says ‘Hi’.”
After six years of thinking of this as Heathen‘s lesser sibling, I have to admit: this ain’t half-bad. The problem, I think, is that Heathen was such a serious, introspective affair that to release something so casual-sounding so soon afterwards was bound to engender a certain amount of backlash. Not to say that this album is short on lyrical introspection, but musically this is about as lightweight and relaxed as Bowie gets. In fact, the Bowie album I’m most inclined to compare it to is Tin Machine II: a melodic modern rock record that’s played mostly straight… well, straight by Bowie’s standards anyhow (no, that’s not a bisexuality joke). Mind you, there’s a good deal of stylistic range here, and while it does result in a plodding cover of George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some,” it also gives us one of Bowie’s rare forays into jazz, the mournful, late-night lament of “Bring Me the Disco King.” The rest is, as stated earlier, melodic modern rock, ranging from a demented reading of the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso” to the almost Frank Black-ish “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon.” There’s also — let’s be frank here — some generic, underwritten crap, indifferent verses with big, catchy choruses tacked on so that the songs play well live. I suppose it’s not Reality‘s fault: where Heathen‘s weaker moments disappeared in the general flow of the mostly low-key songs, Reality is so loosely assembled that the weak moments can’t help but stick out like a sore thumb. Ultimately, though, its quirky nature is part of its intentionally modest charm, a sort of post-millenial Lodger. If this is the last we’ll hear of Bowie, it seems almost appropriate that he’d end his career not with a bang or a whimper, but a question mark.