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David Bowie - Never Let Me Down (2018) ,Loving the Alien,Let’s Dance,Serious Moonlight,Tonight,Re:Call 4,Never Let Music Albums Reviews

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Bowie was never more popular during this period, one he looked back on with guilt and bile. But Loving the Alien offers a reset for listeners—to hear these albums fresh, liberated from their composer’s dismissive opinions.

Every autumn since 2015, a new David Bowie career retrospective box set arrives. These are comprehensive (just about every remix and single/album edit is compiled, some albums even appear twice if their sequencing changed at some point) and yet incomplete (they omit bonus tracks found on Bowie’s early 1990s Rykodisc reissues). The apparent aim is an “official release” Bowie master narrative, in boxes sturdy enough to prop up a table.

Five Years (1969-1973) is the Major Tom/Ziggy Stardust figure eternally beloved by rock retrospectives; Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) is Kabbalist Plastic Soul Bowie; A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982) is “Bowie in Berlin.” And the latest, Loving the Alien (1983-1988), is mass-consumption Bowie, the Man Who Sold (Himself To) the World. He was never more popular than in the period documented in these 11 discs (and 15 LPs): writing songs for kids’ movies, singing with Tina Turner for Pepsi, duetting with Mick Jagger for Live Aid, recording some of the biggest hits of his life.

It’s also a period with scant critical respect, a consensus that Bowie affirmed. He later rubbished many of his 1980s albums, calling them his “nadir,” claiming he was barely around while they were being made. As early as the Tin Machine era in 1989, he looked back on his ’80s with guilt and bile, acting as if he needed to quarantine himself from it. He even made up a story about burning his Glass Spider prop in a field at the end of his 1987 tour, a sacrificial bonfire of his mass-market ambitions (in truth, it was disassembled and sold for scrap). So Loving the Alien offers a reset for listeners—to hear these albums fresh, liberated from their composer’s dismissive opinions.

In January 1983, Bowie signed a lucrative multi-album deal with EMI and hired Nile Rodgers to make him some hits. If still considered to be as major an artist as Fleetwood Mac or Michael Jackson, he was nowhere in their league in terms of units shifted. So the massive global success of Let’s Dance was no fluke—the album was planned as intricately as a troop landing or royal wedding. Made with economy (as Bowie hadn’t signed with a label yet, he funded the sessions and watched every penny like a hawk) and recorded and mixed in less than three weeks, Let’s Dance was an EP’s worth of songs padded out with covers and remakes—one of which, a new version of his and Iggy Pop’s “China Girl,” was a sure-fire hit, Bowie predicted. He was right.

He was ready-made for MTV, but Let’s Dance was also a counter-move: an “organic” soul- and jazz-influenced sound instead of synth pop, even if having some of most colossal gated drums heard on a rock album to date. It was hooky, its tracks given booming sing-along choruses, its players included Stevie Ray Vaughan and all of Chic. And it had a remorseless sequencing: Its first side is three hit singles, back to back to back, with “Without You” as a cooling dish. The rest of the album is more or less B-sides, some odd (“Ricochet” mixes W.H. Auden with a clunking attempt at West African highlife), some ghastly (“Shake It,” whose refrain is the theme of a game show in hell). Let’s Dance had enough Bowie weirdness to make it stand out from other 1983 hit albums—“visions of swastikas” in “China Girl;” the cheery nihilism of “Modern Love”; the dark undercurrent in “Let’s Dance,” a lonely, desperate song beneath its trappings.

To crown his chart successes, he toured throughout 1983. Its document is Serious Moonlight, a Vancouver live recording heretofore only available as a DVD. Serious Moonlight is him starring as the jet-setting author of “David Bowie songs,” taking audiences through a guided tour of his catalog. Setlists were more adventurous than one might expect (Lodger’s “Red Sails” made the cut, “Suffragette City” didn’t) and the core of the band—Carlos Alomar, Carmine Rojas and Tony Thompson—were a supple unit who likely grooved better without Stevie Ray Vaughan as lead guitarist. Playing to the biggest crowds of his life, the tour kicked off his “Phil Collins” years, Bowie later said. Audiences were an uneasy mix of glamsters with lightning bolts painted on their faces and yuppies who woke up whenever Bowie played a new hit.

Tonight (1984) was the hangover: a curious, well-recorded, and often terrible record. Moods fluctuate from brittle exuberance to sleep-stung exhaustion to whatever Bowie channeled for his nightmare interpretation of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” It was the result of Bowie, mere months after his tour ended, stuck in Canada making a self-loathing album that he lost faith in midway through, opting to reuse “the EP’s worth of new tracks larded with covers and remakes” formula. Amid supper-club reggae (“Tonight,” “Don’t Look Down”) and amateur-hour rock opera (“Neighborhood Threat”), its few bright spots were “Blue Jean,” one of his most charming minor hits, the throw-anything-at-the-wall Iggy Pop and Bowie duet “Dancing With the Big Boys” (“Death to the trees!” “Your family is a football team!”) and the box set’s title track, “Loving the Alien,” a song that moves awkwardly, yearning to be a masterwork and falling short.

He didn’t tour Tonight, barely promoted it, soon wrote it off. That said, the album was still a hit—going platinum in months, reaching No. 1 in the UK. Re: Call 4, the latest edition of the “singles and oddments” disc that’s in all of these Bowie sets, collects the rest of Bowie’s mid-1980s commercial peak. He was inspired by contract work, cutting tracks for four different films. Some were his best songs of the decade: “This Is Not America,” with the Pat Metheny Group; the beautiful, doom-struck “When the Wind Blows” for Jimmy T. Murakami’s anti-nuclear-war film; and his last grand moment as a pop singer—“Absolute Beginners,” the theme for a Julien Temple musical, and which nearly became a UK No. 1. Loving the Alien also has Dance, a collection of remixes. An earlier version was proposed in 1985 as a stop-gap compilation and blessedly wasn’t issued at the time, although Arthur Baker’s remixed “Dancing With the Big Boys” is even more garish fun than the original.

The set’s centerpiece is Never Let Me Down (1987). Unlike Tonight, this was no contractual-obligation record. He labored over it and returned to hard rock, updating Ziggy Stardust for the late Reagan years. His songs would offer social commentary while also inspiring interpretative dances on tour; he even played some guitar solos. It wound up being an overcrowded, exhausting record whose aesthetic is a puree of Judge Dredd and Heavy Metal, the film Streets of Fire, mid-1980s “Doctor Who,” and BBC documentaries on “urban scenes” in New York and L.A. There were attempts at Neil Young eco-horror (“Time Will Crawl”) and reviving the Beatles as Day-Glo zombies (“Zeroes”).

While its first side was a solid run of tracks, the album fell apart on the flip, which has some of the most gruesome compositions Bowie ever wrote. (He considered “Too Dizzy” so irredeemable that he cut it from reissues: Its exile continues on this set). There were too many ideas, too many competing needs, too many overdubs. Some of Never Let Me Down sounds as if it’s been stitched together in a moving car. See “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love),” which has Jim Carroll dopers, Joe Strummer mercenaries, a Mickey Rourke rap, Prince and Smokey Robinson cosplay vocals, and Bowie singing “I-could-make-you-hap-py-ev’-ry-god-damn-sin-gle-day-of-your-life!” as if he was reading off a Telex in the vocal booth.

For all of its flaws, Never Let Me Down has a unity—the album has a somewhat charming period-piece feel to it now. It’s one of the most time-stamped “1987” records ever made. In its retooled, rearranged, and remastered form, Never Let Me Down 2018 often comes off as an upper that’s been turned into a downer—a song as gauche as “Beat of Your Drum,” a “Lolita number” (as per its composer) sung by Bowie all but resuming the role of Jareth the Goblin King and singing “I like the smell of your flesh!” is now weirdly somber. As Bowie’s vocals remain from the original record, and as these were over-the-top performances to ensure Bowie stood out in the traffic-jam mixes, hearing these vocals over downtempo and sparse new backing tracks can be jarring. The revised “Zeroes” in particular feels off, with Bowie’s vocals (and Peter Frampton’s sitar, an odd holdover from the original track) and the new backing tracks sounding as if they were taped at different speeds.

There are inspired revisions. The new “Glass Spider” makes Bowie’s most Spinal Tap performance legitimately eerie while preserving its “wait, what?” sense of absurdity. Exhumed horns on “Day-In Day-Out,” which had been replaced by synthesizer stabs on the original album, give that track more bite. But there are questionable calls. Why turn “Shining Star” into a bad song from the early 1990s, and replace poor Mickey Rourke with Laurie Anderson, who has a cool, wry presence but still says lines like “blew heads out of shape in the name of Trotsky, Sinn Fein, Hitler, cash down”? And the sweet “Never Let Me Down” feels overworked with Nico Muhly’s strings, like a colorized film. The remake doesn’t improve on Never Let Me Down as much as it honors the original’s all-over-the-place frustration; it’s an interesting curio.

Loving the Alien also has a Glass Spider tour performance which had only been available as part of a multi-media set in the 2000s. As the original sounded like a bootleg soundboard recording, it’s sonically an improvement at least. The tour was Bowie attempting things he’d do better at other times—filling setlists with mostly new or relatively obscure songs; having percussive dancers. Like much of his ’80s, Glass Spider offers more than the standard take suggests, if it’s still a holy mess at times. In Bowie’s highest-profile era, his work had a particular degree of tension—he wanted to make hits, he couldn’t quite do it sometimes, he half-hated doing it. Mass-market Bowie was still an oddity.

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