Friday, January 15, 2010

David Bowie 22: Never Let Me Down

It seemed that just when fans thought Bowie couldn’t put out a worse album, he did. Never Let Me Down had very little to recommend it, except as a showcase for guest lead guitarist Peter Frampton, who got ovations on the heavily theatrical tour that followed.
The opening singles “Day In Day Out” and “Time Will Crawl” made a strong one-two punch, and still set toes tapping today, despite the dated sound. Unfortunately, they were about as good as the album got, which isn’t saying much considering all that follows. “Beat Of Your Drum” starts out in a mysterious tempo (for this album, anyway) before giving way to a plodding, generic midtempo rocker that beats the metaphor into a pulp. The title track got some play on FMradio, being something of a love song with a Lennonesque falsetto, but much speculation was given to “Zeroes”, with its nostalgic opening reference to a performer named Ziggy and the electric sitar chiming through the verses.
The rest of the attention went to “Glass Spider”, which was the centerpiece of the big expensive tour. All the storytelling of Labyrinth is distilled into a big production involving a narration that deflates any tension that the eventual chorus is supposed to ride, which is too bad, since that chorus is pretty catchy. Strangely, the mood segues neatly into “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)”, up until the baffling appearance by Mickey Rourke rapping on the bridge. “New York’s In Love”, “’87 And Cry”, and “Too Dizzy” are indistinguishable from each other, making the side seem even longer; up until “Bang Bang”, a cover of an obscure Iggy Pop song (surprise!), the rest of the album is intolerable. (Turns out the LP version is shorter than the CD by about five minutes; maybe he was doing us a favor?)
We once called this album “a waste of space,” and while it’s still a low point, some perspective has treated it kinder, but not excusing it. At this point in time, Bowie had finally become the brand name he’d spent his early years dreaming of being, but his lack of substance had become quite worrisome. The music he chose to support his songs was canned and sounded uninspired, and has since dated horribly. Even the man himself wasn’t too kind to this album over the years; when it was reissued with bonus tracks (two B-sides better than the album tracks plus yet another song from a soundtrack) he even went so far as to remove “Too Dizzy” from the original sequence. This only improved side two by making it that much shorter.
A drastically remixed version of “Time Will Crawl”—which was probably the track that aged the best of all of them—emerged on a compilation during Bowie’s semi-retirement, and he apparently was so keen on redoing the album that some of his final collaborators did just that following his death. As included in the Loving The Alien box set, Never Let Me Down (2018) was a gastronomical deconstruction of the album, preserving the vocals, replacing synth drums and canned horns with real ones, adding real strings, and halving tempos. A few tracks weren’t that different, though “Zeroes” was turned inside out, “Glass Spider” and “Bang Bang” given more gravitas, and Laurie Anderson redid the rap on “Shining Star”. “Too Dizzy” is still absent. Even listening to it from this fresh perspective only underscores that the songs weren’t that good to begin with.

David Bowie Never Let Me Down (1987)—2
1995 CD reissue: same as 1987, plus 3 extra tracks (and minus 1)

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