As a pop-culture changeling flitting from pose to pose, David Bowie is overrated. Ultimately, there isn’t that much difference between Ziggy Stardust and the Elephant Man — they’re both ugly misfits who want to control their worlds. However, as a pop musician, endlessly experimenting and exhausting new styles, Bowie is unduly neglected. He has been consistently astute in his choice of collaborators, from Mick Ronson to Brian Eno. And now, the Thin White Duke has teamed up with a master of black rock, Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, for an album of chilly dance music.
Let’s Dance sounds great; it’s all beat, brains and breathiness. The album’s most intelligent strategy is its utter simplicity: Rodgers serves up guitar lines in thick slabs, and Bowie’s voice cuts across their surface like a knife slicing meat. His mannered whine is alluringly distant — charming but formal, inveigling but austere. This is as true of a song like the loud, slamming “Modern Love” as it is of the quiet, pulsing “Without You.”
Working as coproducers, Bowie and Rodgers have updated each other’s sound. Although Bowie revitalized his career in 1975 by ripping off a James Brown riff for the hit single “Fame,” Chic’s brand of black rock & roll is more suitable for him. The icy sheen of aloofness that glistens on Chic’s greatest hits (“Good Times,” “Le Freak”) is a lacquer that coats Bowie’s whole career, from “Space Oddity” through the fractured, mysterious LP, Lodger. Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards formed Chic at the height of discomania, and while Chic’s work remains interesting and vital, the duo’s career has not: their last two albums have stalled on the charts, and their remake/remodel of Deborah Harry on Koo Koo was a disaster.
For his part, Bowie hasn’t been heard from much since 1980. Scary Monsters was a good album, but it was also a dead end, concluding the themes of dislocation and alienation developed on Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. By superstar standards, it was only a modest commercial success, and its pervasive feelings of dread and sadness were oppressive. If Bowie has become this much of a downer, his audience seemed to say, give us Gary Numan.
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But now Bowie and Rodgers are back, and the title song of Let’s Dance is a jittery, bopping single as vital as anything on the radio. It’s also relevant to add that Gary Numan is a has-been: there’s a difference between following trends and running them into the ground, after all.
The trend Bowie and Rodgers are following is Eighties-style dance music. Let’s Dance is synth-pop without the synths — or, at least, without their domination. Although Rob Sabino adds splashes of keyboards, Rodgers’ guitar does the work that synthesizers usually do these days, providing the foot-tapping hooks and an aura of cool.
For all its surface beauty, though, there’s something thin and niggling about Let’s Dance. Perhaps it’s Bowie’s choice of material, some of which is recycled: “China Girl,” cowritten by Iggy Pop, appeared on Pop’s 1977 LP, The Idiot; “Criminal World” was recorded by Metro; and “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is a rerecording of Bowie and Giorgio Moroder’s theme song for Paul Schrader’s Cat People film. Subtract these three tunes — and they are certainly the most subtractable songs on the album — and you’re left with five songs. Of these, “Ricochet” borrows the tape trickery, anonymous voices and rhythms of Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while “Let’s Dance” refurbishes the hook of Chic’s “Good Times.”
That leaves three pristine lovelies, and I’m tempted to employ a reviewer’s cliché and say they’re worth the price of the album. I’ll resist, however, for it is only in the context of the whole record that “Modern Love,” “Without You” and “Shake It” take on their most dramatic effects. This trio of songs offers some of the most daring songwriting of Bowie’s career. The lyrics are so simple they risk simple-mindedness, yet I’d give a hundred “Space Oddity”s for the elegant cliché twisting at the climax of “Modern Love”: “Modern love gets me to the church on time/Church-on-time terrifies me.” As a rock statement about growing up and facing commitments, that couplet beats the hell out of Jackson Browne.
“Without You” and “Shake It” are two of a kind: the former features the most exquisitely unaffected vocal performance Bowie has yet attempted, while the latter adds wit to candor. Quite aside from a verse about Manhattan that should make cabaret writers Kander and Ebb squirm with jealousy (“I could take you to heaven/I could spin you to hell/But I’ll take you to New York/It’s the place that I ??now well”), “Shake It” is Bowie’s most triumphant stab at deflating the portentous persona of David Bowie Superstar. Having spent a career donning masks, acting existentially neurotic and pushing his latest image, Bowie lets his voice slip demurely behind the lurching beat and a squealing backup chorus, only to suddenly surge forward and deliver the lines that end the album: “When I’m feeling disconnected, well, I sure know what to do/Shake it, baby.”
It’s a great, giddy moment: David Bowie cuts a rug, and cuts the crap. Love is the answer, get down and boogie. Let’s dance, indeed.