It used to be easy. Once a year or so, David Bowie would choose a new persona, pick up a fresh batch of pop-culture reference points, borrow a new musical style and release a new album. Then we'd all sit around and figure out who he was this time. Ziggy Stardust? Aladdin Sane? The Thin White Duke? The Lodger? The Serious Moonlighter?
Never Let Me Down isn't so cut and dried. It's an odd, freewheeling pastiche of elements from all the previous Bowies, an unfocused conglomeration of Aladdin Sane's hard rock, Station to Station's dense sound and Let's Dance's backbeat. It may well be the noisiest, sloppiest Bowie album ever. Being noisy and sloppy isn't necessarily a bad thing — after all, it makes this LP more interesting than 1984's Tonight, which was distinguished chiefly by its duliness — but sad to say, Never Let Me Down is also something of a mess.
Sure, it might be a big hit: Bowie is going on tour, his tours are events, and events sell records. And he's turned lackluster records into hits in the past; in fact, he's reached a startling level of influence and status while making few genuinely groundbreaking records. He helped bring glitter rock, Philly soul and European technopop to a broader audience, but for every standout LP, he's released a couple of weak ones. Bowie's triumph is the creation of a small but indelible gallery of images, looks, characters and moments in pop history; his ace in the hole is his ability to give even disappointing albums bench-mark hit singles, like "Rebel Rebel," from Diamond Dogs, and the title tracks from Young Americans and Let's Dance.
As much a dramatist as he is a musician, Bowie is at his best only when he has both a strong dramatic text and a coherent musical context: the roaring bravado of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the formidable density of Station to Station, the rootless chill of Lodger. Never Let Me Down doesn't aim for that kind of coherence; its grandiose, unfocused frenzy is part of the point. And at first, Bowie and coproducer David Richards (the team responsible for Iggy Pop's Blah-Blah-Blah) seem to have hit on an invigorating, nervy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.
On "Day-In Day-Out," a sketchy portrait of a woman adrift on the streets, the rhythm section pumps away, jagged guitar solos cut in and out of the mix, art-rock keyboards swell in the distance, R&B horns punctuate the melody, and the backup singers are by turns angelic and aggressive. Though the song is vaguely annoying, it's also dizzying and fun, as is the hypnotic "Time Will Crawl," the saxophone-spiked rocker "Too Dizzy" and Bowie's version of Iggy's 1981 romp "Bang Bang," even if David can't come close to his buddy's deadpan detachment.
But the fun wears off quickly. Song after song shifts earnestly but jarringly from one style to another. Bowie piles on the occasional sitar sound, harmonica or Mellotron and adds incessant guitar solos that allow Peter Frampton to play faster, harder, shriller and more often than on his own records.
And then there's "Glass Spider," Bowie's most embarrassing moment in years, in which he uses his deepest, most dramatic voice to solemnly recite an introductory monologue about a "glass-like spider," her "palace-like" web and her kids. It's probably not any dumber than the 1984-inspired excesses of Diamond Dogs, but coming thirteen years later from an artist who's supposed to be sophisticated and intelligent, it sounds a hell of a lot dumber. It also completely sinks the feelings of terror the rest of the song strains to convey.
Not many pop stars would risk that kind of portentous and pretentious silliness, or follow it with a song as thematically audacious as "Shining Star (Makin' My Love)." On that song, Bowie alternates grim sketches of death and disillusionment with a starry-eyed, romantic chorus, sets the whole thing to a bouncy melody, sings it in a sweet, high voice and then throws in a midsong duet in which he and actor Mickey Rourke mumble about things like "poor little bodies all covered in scabs."
So yeah, David Bowie still has guts. The trouble is, guts alone can't make these songs sound any more significant, any more focused or any less grating than they are. Maybe airplay will invigorate some of these tunes the way it did "Let's Dance"; maybe Bowie will give these songs new life on the road; maybe even what initially sounds unbearably cluttered will soon sound haunting, as happened with 1976's Station to Station.
But don't count on it. Bowie, after all, is still supposed to be a trend setter, a canny chameleon who knows just when to change color, but it's hard to believe that he's ahead of the times when he sports Don Johnsonstyle stubble and sings lyrics that mention, of all things, Top Gun.
Paradoxically, the most heartening song on the LP is a salute to a decade that ended seventeen years ago. "Zeroes" starts with a Ziggy-style conceit — a futuristic rocker singing to an adoring crowd — and an anthemic, Ziggy-style melody; perhaps because it's Bowie's conscious salute to the Sixties, the music is far more focused and evocative than most of the album. It's designed to be rousing, and like his best work, it succeeds even though every last effect is clearly calculated. "Zeroes" shows that David Bowie can effectively, even movingly, salute his past; the rest of Never Let Me Down, though, doesn't bode as well for Bowie's present, or his future.