“Without a doubt and by some stretch, the worst of the three hundred and one records” that Marcello Carlin and listening partner Lena have reviewed. It makes Let’s Dance sound like Swordfishtrombones, he writes. And those are the most hedged examples. The album is Tonight, a quickie rush-released in the fall of 1984 when it became clear that David Bowie’s songwriting inspiration had waned, perhaps forever. Into this curdled bisque he tossed a handful of new tunes co-written with Iggy Pop, Beach Boys and Iggy and Leiber-Stoller covers, and two bits he wrote himself. One of those, “Blue Jean,” has its defenders; indeed, in 1994 or 1995 I preferred it to “Let’s Dance” because ubiquity hadn’t ruined it and its tossed-off nature appealed to me. I apologize. “Blue Jean” is a producer and writer trying to recreate “Let’s Dance” and producing treacle. Just the SOUND of that track (the marimba! the horns!)! It’s coke treble or something. Believing that Bowie could sing from the depths of erotic longing is like believing Richard Nixon could fuck a Kardashian twice before lunch. Fans have also made conciliatory noises about “Loving the Alien.” Why can I imagine Bowie and video director Julien Temple writing the storyboard before Bowie had even finished the song? Unintelligible singing — determined to give no phrase consideration or its due weight — and a heap of broken “Middle Eastern” images beaded on the string of Carlos Alomar’s sturdy rhythm hook. Even the video traffics in predictable MTV surrealism, with Bowie sporting aqua pants and a snakeskin jacket or shirt, barefoot, and looking like Annie Lennox crossed with Woodrow Wilson. Give me Never Let Me Down, his 1987 attempt at recording a Georgia Satellites album that sported at least a half dozen examples of an art-damaged sensibility unable to direct Peter Frampton into recording a solo with an interesting chord sequence.
Ah, singing. Chris O’Leary, covering his ears just enough, dissects Bowie’s terrible choices:
He starts singing the title phrase in a hectoring tone, souring the pleasures of the long vowels—the way “OHN-lee” and “KNOWS” are warm sisters, a communal reassurance following the initial hard, short vowel of “God.” Instead Bowie places his weight upon “God” and rushes through the rest of the phrase, letting it expire in a sickly gasp on “with-out you.” The last repeat, in which Bowie brutalizes each word, wringing whatever effect he can from each syllable, is the apex of the dreadful performance. It’s astonishing in its tastelessness.
Contemporary/rival Bryan Ferry recorded diaphanous material during this period, but at least his failure to enunciate forced me to realize he was an intermittently excellent melismatic singer. “God Only Know” is the kind of Bowie record that makes you go, “Oh, damn, he really can’t sing.” It makes one wonder, Marcello writes, “whether Bowie ever understood pop music. In America, 1984 is often considered the high water mark of pop music: the amazing admixture of MTV-fueled flash, the last dregs of New Wave-powered L.A. rock, and the rise of hip-hop to create a pop Esperanto. Bowie’s creative confusion is especially weird given how his hand guided many of those radio/MTV hits. The only conclusion I can come to is how terrible a pop song writer he was when surrounded in all sides by sterling examples. It’s as if the competition flummoxed him. But unfortunately for Bowie the previous generation’s tricksters could sing when the material sputtered.
Years ago my friend Thomas took an, ah, larger view. “An album rich in textures with some fine singing,” he assured the aghast audience and himself (I do treasure his description of Tina Turner singing on the title track “as if at gunpoint”). He might have been defending the 1995 Virgin reissue, its utility limited to the extra tracks, all from movies: the curate’s egg called “This is Not America” (The Falcon and the Snowman); the MOR but not terrible “As The World Falls Down” (Labyrinth), in which the high, spooky “Loving the Alien” voice gets its most attractive setting; and “Absolute Beginners” from Temple’s 1986 film, revered by many fans, very nearly a number one hit in England, diminished by a couple of bars in which Bowie proved he couldn’t shake the ghost of Anthony Newley, who owned him like Scott Walker never did.