In Nicholas Roeg’s movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, there’s a scene in which David Bowie, playing a vulnerable extraterrestrial visitor, intently watches the ritualized, larger-than-life violence of a Kabuki performance. That scene — the way Bowie is at first transfixed and then darts abruptly away, as if repulsed, satiated and sufficiently instructed — keeps coming to mind while listening to Scary Monsters. Like the character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie has been continually fascinated by the use of stylized postures (i.e., tropisms ballooned to human scale) as a means of objectifying horror. On Scary Monsters, he deals with the greater horror of letting such postures pass for people.
On his early albums, Bowie changed ironic manifestations like a man running a magnifying glass through his own body — liver, genitals, spleen — in order to mimic the excesses of the body politic. His was an aesthetic that involved distance, subverted from within by its very ambitiousness and from without by a rush toward spectacle that blurred the distinctions between purposeful distortion and simple hyperbole. Aided by the artist’s collaboration with his own legend, his often coy self-congratulation and his refusal to disclose the crucial machinery, it was easy for people to mistake his shifts of persona for meaningful internal dialogue or, worse, to take them all literally.
Scary Monsters clarifies the David Bowie/Brian Eno Low-“Heroes”-Lodger experiments. They were reeducational projects: deliberate, short-term consolidations of the singer’s skills and audience. While the Devos of this world forged his dramas into dogma, lampooning and literalizing his heritage, Bowie toiled in the training camp of the musical avant-garde, acquiring yet another synthetic vocabulary and releasing miniaturistic exercises that, stripped of their pretensions, turned out to be some of his finest work.
On Scary Monsters, he comes out fighting. Fusing the sheet-metal textures of the Eno trilogy into something darker and more dense, Bowie focuses his attention on a world he helped create. Lodger, with its sardonic gambol through “the hinterland,” was the final serving — and sendup — of the old pose of evasive escapism. Scary Monsters presents David Bowie riveted to life’s passing parade: streamlined moderns, trendies and sycophants in 360 degrees of stark, scarifying Panavision. With its nervous voyeurism, Scary Monsters is more like Aladdin Sane (probably Bowie’s best record) than anything else. But because the bleakness that Bowie now witnesses is partially of his own devising, it gives the new LP a heavy, stricken pall. If there’s condescension in the artist’s stance (Prometheus aghast at what mortals have made of his gift?), there’s also genuine concern. Bowie has the air of a superhero who’s shrugged off his powers and thus volunteered himself to a reality from which he can’t quick-change away.
Claustrophobia descends immediately in the opening “It’s No Game (Part I),” which clanks and jerks its way into a lumbering, robotic dance. Bowie’s vocal — a long, distorted yowl of pain — is intercut with a harsh, rapid-fire Japanese translation. With its blunt rhythms, discordant accents and cautionary lyrics (“Throw the rock against the road and/It breaks into pieces…/It’s no game”), the song is meant to jolt and distress. The end is particularly disturbing. As the tune falls away, Robert Fripp’s stair-stepping guitar riff continues until the singer’s screams of “Shut up!” snap it to a halt — and you realize it was just a tape loop: mechanical companionship. It’s an ugly, disorienting moment. Scary Monsters is full of them.
Throughout the album, the beat is so jackbooted, the pressure so intense, you find yourself casting about for relief. Yet each hint of help (the ice-crystal space walk of “Ashes to Ashes,” the crooner’s catch to Bowie’s vocal in “Because You’re Young,” his failed leaps at a romantic falsetto in “Teenage Wildlife”) pulls you back into the same gray night-mare. The freeze-dried Bo Diddley riff that begins “Up the Hill Backwards” slashes into the middle of a bunch of swaying, arm-linked half-wits, who coo with the blank contentment of Brave New World some addicts: “More idols than realities/Oooh/ I’m O.K. — you’re so-so/Oooh/ It’s got nothing to do with you/If one can grasp it.”
David Bowie has always utilized distance for self-preservation, but now he’s shuddering at the results — at what happens when estrangement becomes not only an illustrative concept but a code to live by. The wraiths who inhabit Scary Monsters are all either running scared with their eyes closed or too wasted to notice what’s in front of them. They’re antiromantic, half-dead, disposable. “I love the little girl and I’ll love her till the day she dies,” Bowie leers in the title track, his exaggerated London accent a garish caricature of maudlin sentiment.
“Ashes to Ashes,” a sequel to “Space Oddity,” is Bowie’s most explicit self-indictment. Mirroring the malaise of the times, Major Tom — the escapist hero-has metamorphosed into a space-bound junkie, clinging hard to his pride and the fantasy that he’ll “stay clean tonight.” Though the image is chilling, it’s difficult to see “Ashes to Ashes,” with its reference to “a guy that’s been/In such an early song,” as anything but perverse self-aggrandizement. More successful is “Fashion,” a heavy-handed, irony-laden parody of stylistic fascism (“We are the goon squad/And we’re coming to town/Beep beep”), complete with handclaps and trendy buzz-and-whir accents. Hollow to the core, the tune is infectious enough to be a dance-floor hit, which will merely prove its point.
Terse, rocky and often didactic, David Bowie’s compositions cut away all illusions of dignity in isolation, of comfort in crowds. Even Bowie’s cover version of “Kingdom Come,” Tom Verlaine’s anthem about strife and salvation, is dark. He changes the heart-stopping shimmer of the original into a strained lock step. Verlaine’s affirming call-and-response (“I’ll be breaking these rocks/Until the kingdom comes”) is treated as a deadly joke. Bowie sings “Kingdom Come” in a flat, fake-naive drawl, and each line is answered — not with a promise but with a mock-gospel echo — by the lobotomized choir of “Up the Hill Backwards.” Since every last knee slap has been preplanned, it’s like a revival meeting in which nobody is transfigured. Any chance for redemption is out.
No one breaks through on Scary Monsters. No one is saved. Major Tom is left unrescued. The tortured, reprocessed gays of “Scream like a Baby” can’t save their friends — or their badge of difference. The human mannequins of “Fashion” can’t stop marching. Indeed, the kids in “Because You’re Young” can’t even tell each other apart Instead, beguiled by the hope of hope, they track the wasted remnants of romance (“A million dreams/A million scars”) until youth, too, is wasted.
Where do you go when hope is gone? Bowie’s enervated, meditative, half-speed reprise of “It’s No Game” leaves the question — and the record — hanging. The artist’s next album may see him questing, but on Scary Monsters, he’s settling old scores. Slowly, brutally and with a savage, satisfying crunch, David Bowie eats his young.