Thursday, June 20, 2013

A David Bowie Retrospective - 2. Never Let Me Down (1987)

I wasn’t looking forward to listening to Never Let Me Down. Bowie himself said it was the worst album he’d ever made and that opinion seems to be shared by many fans and critics, but let me say from the outset that I disagree. I’m not suggesting you rush out and buy the album, but it is actually quite listenable – very much more listenable than the boring, bland Tonight.

The opening track, ‘Day In Day Out’, and a couple of other songs – ‘Zeroes’ and ‘87 and Cry’ – are quite decent. The problem is the production and arrangements. I hate the drum sound and some of the keyboard and guitar licks, which should hang high in the hall of rock clichés. Bowie was pretty fed up with what he was doing by this stage and took little part in the making of the album other than turning up with some tunes and singing them, and the lack of engagement shows. This is an album sounding as if it’s been made by dutiful session musicians – skilled musicians but lacking creative spark.

The stand-out track is ‘Time Will Crawl’. At least, unlike on Tonight, there is a stand-out track. It wouldn’t make a list of Bowie’s greatest achievements, but it is a catchy number that gets into your head and not unpleasantly so. The song’s video shows Bowie looking like he’s turned up for a Wham audition several years late, a concession to commercial demand rather than someone at the centre of musical style (let alone substance).

The rest of the album is relatively forgettable. ‘Glass Spider’ is intriguing with a spoken intro and an untraditional structure – it’s just not that good, but it is a welcome advance on Tonight’s lack of adventure. The title track and ‘Shining Star’ would fit nicely onto that album! The other songs aren’t interesting but not terrible either. One track, ‘Too Dizzy’ was removed from future pressings of the album. I found it on YouTube and it is pretty awful! Basically, if you have listened to all Bowie’s classic albums, this album is worth a listen on Spotify, but don’t get too over-excited at the prospect...

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Few Transtromer Nuggets

‘...a biblical saying never set down: “Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.”’ (Tomas Transtromer, ‘Below Freezing’)

‘Many workshop poets comb their personal memory and write poems about their childhood, filling the poems with a clutter of detail. This clutter sometimes ensures that the piece will remain “a piece of writing” and will not become “a work of art”’ (Robert Bly – ‘Tomas Transtromer and “The Memory”)

'So much we have to trust, simply to live through our daily day without sinking through the earth!
Trust the piled snow clinging to the mountain slope above the village.
Trust the promises of silence and the smile of understanding, trust that the accident telegram isn’t for us and that the sudden axe-blow from within won’t come.
Trust the axles that carry us on the highway in the middle of the three hundred times life-size bee swarm of steel.
But none of this is really worth our confidence.
The five strings say we can trust something else. And they keep us company part of the way.
As when the time-switch clicks off in the stairwell and the fingers – trustingly – follow the blind handrail that finds its way in the darkness.'
(Tomas Transtromer, tr. Robin Fulton, ‘from ‘Schubertiana’, part 4)

‘Art helps us, [Transtromer] says, as a banister helps the climber on a dark stairwell.’ (Robert Bly)

Friday, June 14, 2013

A David Bowie Retropective - 1. Tonight (1984)

I was listening to David Bowie’s classic seventies material, which contains arguably the best songwriting and most influential body of work in rock music history, and I realised I hadn’t paid much attention to his later work, specifically the albums since Let’s Dance brought Bowie to a mass commercial audience in 1983. I have decided to listen to the albums he’s brought out in the last 30 years (30 years!) and see what he’s been up to all this time. I have hopes for the more recent stuff. Not so much for the eighties and nineties, but I am open to be proved wrong or at least to hear a few great tracks buried among the mediocre ones.

I started off with 1984’s Tonight, an album I did hear a few tracks from at the time, none of which interested me. Would I change my mind 29 years later? Well, I’m afraid not. It’s a weak, dull, anodyne product. Given that’s it’s generally thought to be stronger than the two that came afterwards, I’m already looking forward to the getting beyond them!

One problem with Tonight is that there isn’t a single stand-out song. Everything sounds as if it’s originated in a syth-pop minor hit factory, the kind of songs that peak at number 73 in the singles chart. Easily the best track is the opener, ‘Loving the Alien’, but the production is terrible, in an eighties kind of way, ironing out any interest the song might otherwise have had. There are several low moments – a poor cover of the Beach Boys’ fabulous ‘God Only Knows’, a truly awful song called ‘Neighbourhood Threat’, and a directionless mishmash of Billy Ocean, drum-machine rockabilly and bland soft rock for the rest.

I’m told the album was recorded in a hurry and the record company wanted something that would appeal to the massive commercial base Bowie had established with Let’s Dance. It worked and Tonight was a number one album in the UK. Which just goes to show... But it’s entirely forgettable. It seems that Bowie now feels most of the album was a waste of time too and you have to admire something who is as self-critical as he often is.

But no, Tonight gets a definite thumbs down from me. Onto Never Let Me Down now, from 1987, often regarded as Bowie’s worst ever moment. Should be fun...