There. I’ve said it.
Bowie’s Tin Machine project has a foul reputation – but it’s by no means entirely deserved. It helps to remember that at the end of the ’80s, Bowie had tailed off, rather directionless, recording an album even he rather regrets (Never Let Me Down), after having been accused of selling out utterly. That latter charge was, I think, unfair: first, while Let’s Dance indeed brought him enormous sales, it was never a simple dance-pop CD. Even the title track features, in addition to its stomping dance beat, jazzy chord voicings, and it leads off an album that, in retrospect, is a pretty fine collection of songs. Let’s Dance‘s follow-up, Tonight, is a far weaker CD, larded with forgettable covers and Bowie’s ongoing donations to the James Osterberg Charitable Foundation. Still, “Loving the Alien” and “Blue Jean” were fine songs. Never Let Me Down, however, is almost completely forgettable. (As in: I’ve forgotten how any song on that album goes.)
So when Bowie decided to form a band, designed to play live rock’n’roll music, a lot of people thought it was desperate: Bowie the chameleon no longer starting trends but tagging along after them. That’s too bad, because at its best the tension between guitarist Reeves Gabrels’ rangy, feedback-laden guitar experiments (Adrian Belew plays with Sonic Youth) and Bowie’s more elegant compositional strategies produced some fine songs. The Sales brothers rhythm section was energetic (if a bit too noisily recorded, in a bit of an ’80s hangover) and enthusiastic, even if the “band democracy” thing allowing the occasional lead vocal and songwriting contribution weren’t the best ideas. So even though a couple of tracks on the first Tin Machine album seem more like the fruits of a rehearsal jam than actual songs, a handful of tracks are quite good. My favorites are “Prisoner of Love” and “I Can’t Read.” I’m particularly fond of the skirling, bagpipe-like backdrop in the lead-in to “Prisoner of Love”‘s chorus. “I Can’t Read” laments a nation of citizens so simple-minded, driving their modules isn’t an option: they seem incapable even of finding the damned things. Everything about this song is falling apart: the chords stretch out at odd angles, the guitar tone fragments into rogue harmonics, the rhythm positively lurches into the chorus, and Bowie’s vocal sounds as if it was recorded thirty seconds after he was awakened from a very heavy and unpleasant sleep. And I mean every word of that as a compliment.
The backlash against Tin Machine was so strong that the band’s second album (and it was a band: Gabrels went on to collaborate with Bowie for his next few albums, and he co-wrote most the songs) never stood a chance. Too bad – because it’s actually a better, more consistent album. The songs seem more developed; even though it slackens a bit toward the end (aside from its brilliant finale, “Goodbye Mr. Ed“), the songs still feel like songs. The band’s energy seems a bit more focused here as well. “You Belong in Rock & Roll” (the title’s always seemed like a putdown to me…) adds Bowie’s distinctive sax work to the mix (even though no one will ever confuse Bowie as a sax player with Sonny Rollins, he has a very particular sound and style that instantly earmarks a song as Bowie’s), and the lyric of “Goodbye Mr. Ed” is another example of Bowie’s word salad. It’s not exactly clear what he’s saying specifically, yet the words are evocative of a particular mood or setting. There’s a tone of resignation to his singing, some regret, but almost a sense of bemusement. (Bowie periodically dusts off some of these songs in an acoustic format, and in such a setting their compositional acuity shines through. I know he’s done “I Can’t Read” in this style, and “Goodbye Mr. Ed” would be a good candidate.)