Rather than append a few tracks to my earlier post about Bowie’s ’90s years fighting his way back from the wilderness of critical disdain, I’m starting a new post.
So: Bowie’s ’80s were a bit dismal, true. After the triumphant Scary Monsters in 1980, which summed up several ideas of his Berlin trilogy, Bowie followed with Let’s Dance in 1983 (despite its title, it’s not all commercial: the horn chart on that album’s “Ricochet” is quite jazzy) and the rather underachieving Tonight in 1984 (the album contains a couple of fine tracks but mostly flounders through ill-advised covers – mostly by Iggy Pop), Bowie hit his nadir with Never Let Me Down in 1987. He seems to have known he was struggling; his next album of new material didn’t arrive until six years later.
And despite some stylistic uncertainty, Black Tie White Noise finds Bowie revitalizing the experimental aspect of his music, this time along with his interest in dance music, R&B, and jazz. This makes for a rather densely recorded album, in which funk bass and Nile Rodgers’ trademark guitar style sit alongside Bowie’s sax playing and (something I suspect Bowie had been wanting to do for a long time) namesake Lester Bowie’s free-jazz trumpet blurts. “You’ve Been Around” seems to exist in a flow of several different songs, the melody riding on top of everything – but that sort of confusion and profusion of surfaces is one thing that moves this record past the occasional dated backing vocal or synth blurp.
His next album, Outside (or according to some pedants, 1. Outside, which is what’s printed on the cover…even though the spine gives the title as merely Outside) didn’t exactly play nice with the public: it’s described in the liner notes as “a non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle” (QQF?), and its subject matter – set at the then-upcoming turn of the century, it features a detective trying to solve a series of ritualistic art murders – must have seemed utterly daft and incomprehensible to most. (It is, however, based on the ideas of a handful of actual artists, the Vienna Actionists.) Despite the return of Brian Eno, and Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson (a lad insane on the piano) from Bowie’s ’70s bands, the music presents few of the easily graspable touchstones of that ’70s work. Instead, it’s dense, noisy, dark, chaotic, often nearly atonal, again with Bowie layering his melodies on top. Repeated listens reveal them as solid melodies, and there are indeed some catchy songs here, but this is dense, knotty (and long) work…and for listeners unwilling to put in effort, it probably falls confusingly flat. (The endorsement around this time of Bowie’s music by Trent Reznor – then at the peak of his popularity – didn’t really help either artist: Bowie’s music here was far more complex and less visceral than NIN (ironic given the literal viscerality of the artwork in question), and Reznor’s fans seemed ready to jump ship to simpler renunciations of, you know, shit that isn’t dark…) “A Small Plot of Land” begins with Garson playing one of his typical frightened-cat-on-the-keyboard solos over a murky bed of rhythms, out of which gradually emerges Bowie’s slow, measured vocal.
That contrast of simultaneous fast and slow textures was probably one thing Bowie found attractive in the then-just-past-edgy drum’n’bass (or jungle: let the aficionados argue whether the terms are equivalent). In trying to incorporate some of the sound and feel of that genre in his next album Earthling, Bowie ran afoul of the usual dilemma critically confronting older, established artists: continue to do what you did successfully ten years ago, and you’re stuck in a rut, irrelevant, washed-up; pay attention to what’s going on, try to incorporate it, and you’re a train-jumper, a trend-follower, a hack who just doesn’t “get” the style. What those critics missed was that Bowie wasn’t trying to make a d’n’b record, he was making a DB record. (Sorry: I couldn’t resist.) Stripped down to their skeletons, these are a batch of distinctively Bowie songs, with all his harmonic and melodic characteristics intact. What’s new is the arrangements – which aren’t slavishly d’n’b either (several tracks don’t borrow from the style at all) but which incorporate more “rock” sounds than was typical of the genre. A few tracks fall a bit short, and Bowie dropped the density of sound characterizing his last two releases for a relatively transparent arrangement and mix. “Dead Man Walking” is a good example: while the rhythm treatment clearly is indebted to jungle, the track is built on a solid chorus counterpointed by Reeves Gabrels’ cobra-like guitar line.
Overall, while none of these CDs is as consistent an album as Bowie’s best work, they all present Bowie doing what he’s always done: exploring and trying to find ways to present his material that sound both apt and arresting, catchy and innovative. (And it should be remembered that “classic” Bowie albums in the ’70s sometimes had one or two forgettable tracks; we just remember the classic tracks and overlook the less-impressive ones…)