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Week 40 | Never Let Me Down (1987)

“Never Let Me Down’s” terrible reputation has achieved some rehabilitation in recent years, rising from widely being considered Bowie’s very worst album to merely one of his worst.  Nonetheless it marks various, significant turning points in Bowie’s career.  Although it contained a few minor hits, it was the first album of his post-greatest hits stage.  It marked the end of his 80s pop-star period, and it ushered in the time he ceased being cool, regardless of the quality of his new music.  On a personal level, it was the most recent Bowie album released at the time I was becoming a fan.  My first Bowie concert was part of the Glass Spider tour, which was the tour promoting the album.  

I remember being aware of reviews of this album at the time of its release.  I recall one comparing it negatively to Bowie’s previous album, “Tonight.”  Though I haven’t really done a survey of reviews then and more recently, it seems over time “Tonight” has cemented a place in the hearts of fans and critics as Bowie’s low point, while “Never Let Me Down” is recognized as highly flawed but with some redeeming value.  Musicians who has previously worked with Bowie recorded new instrumentals for the songs on the album and released a 2018 version as part of the box set, “Loving the Alien.”  I haven’t heard this yet and the present comments are on the original album, but the 2018 version included as a selling point for the box set suggests that reconsideration of the original is warranted.  

The typical narrative around “Never Let Me Down” is that Bowie was desperate to recreate the  pop success of “Let’s Dance,” yet he stoped caring (he later said it himself) and hung on to a pop-persona too long.  He milked it, jumped the shark and released an over-produced and under-imaginative, insincere failure of a pop album.  After the album and tour, Bowie tossed off the mass-audience friendly persona and launched Tin Machine, but it was too late.  While I like the music of Tin Machine, Bowie’s star power had faded by 1989, probably less because of Tin Machine and more because of the bad taste left by “Never Let Me Down.”

In an attempt to erase the experience from his past, Bowie ceased performing any of the songs from the album and spent most of the rest of his career trying to resharpen the edge.  There were a few exceptions, such as “Black Tie/White Noise,” but even here I have read that the song “Lucy Can’t Dance” wasn’t included in part because the word “Dance” was too reminiscent of “Let’s Dance,” which was the part of his career from which Bowie was trying to escape. 

OK, so, that out of the way, I occasionally listen to “Never Let Me Down.”  I myself don’t think it is horrible.  It has many redeeming values.  The concert was life-changing, and a more recent listen to his live performances from that tour reminded me that the songs from the album were even better live, which is usually not the case for Bowie songs.  I look forward to the 2018 version being released as a stand-alone album.  I especially like one song, “Time Will Crawl,” which probably could have felt at home on my favorite album, “Scary Monsters.”  

Not being an expert in music, I don’t exactly know what the term “over produced” means, but I kind of get it when it comes to “Never Let Me Down.”  Most of the songs have merit on a case by case basis, but Bowie’s voice and lyrics are fighting a battle with a generic synthy 80s sound that didn’t sound great at the time and doesn’t hold up.  Clocking in at over 45 minutes, with 11 songs (some versions have 10, some have more with bonus tracks), “Never Let Me Down” is on the long side for a Bowie album.  This is a plus, however the individual strength of each song kind of gets blended together making the whole less than the sum of its parts.

I think he album further suffers from poor packaging.  The cover art featured a long-haired Bowie leaping in the middle of what looks like a fake circus, maybe on a high floor in a fake building (?).  I don’t find the picture of Bowie to be attractive, and the surroundings seem to be staged for some symbolic reason…but I’ve never picked up on the meaning of the symbolism.  The stage is set for motion, chaos and pastiche.  

Further, the title (which is also the title of one of the album’ weaker songs), is a bit of a dare.  How do you name an album, “Never Let You Down,” unless you have enormous confidence that its contents will not be a let down?  The phrase seems to have been stuck in Bowie’s head— he has songs titled, “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Don’t Let Me Down and Down.”  In any case, despite its redeeming qualities, “Never Let Me Down” is certainly far from Bowie’s best work and thus the title invites the thought that it is a letdown.  

As for its virtues?  Well, for me, I like many of its songs— in addition to “Time Will Crawl,” I like much of “Beat of Your Drum” (not so much the refrain), “Zeros,” “New York’s In Love,” “87 and Cry” and the closing track, which is the last Iggy’s Pop song covered by Bowie on any album, “Bang Bang.”  These are not among my very favorite Bowie songs, but I like them.  Plus, Bowie’s voice remains strong.  His range is evident, even on a hokey (but hey, not actually terrible if you don’t focus on the lyrics) song like, “Glass Spider.”  It’s Bowie’s voice singing songs.  There is a floor to how bad that can possibly be.

“Never Let Me Down” is not that floor.  It deserves a reassessment.  Just because it isn’t great doesn’t mean its terrible.

What happened next is interesting and a little sad.  Including the Tin Machine years, Bowie would continue to churn out a studio album about every two years or so until he went on a hiatus due to health issues in 2003.  During that time his popular reputation descended into an almost has-been status.  Fans who stuck with him derided his 80s persona as a period of selling out, but also didn’t fully embrace his new music in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  The term, “best album since ‘Scary Monsters’” was repeated with each new album starting around 1993, but that was a triple layered backhanded compliment.  On one level, it was dismissive of everything since “Scary Monsters.”  On another, it was a particular shot at “Let’s Dance,” which was an enormous hit and brought Bowie to a much wider audience.  And on another level it was avoiding discussion of the present.  This fixation on Bowie’s catalog from 1969-1980 (conveniently the catalog reissued by Rykodisc, where I got most of my versions of these albums) ignored Bowie’s other, often very strong work.  Saying the most recent album was the best since “Scary Monsters,” after having said the same thing about the previous album, also ignores the previous album as if the assessment at the time (and presently) was not meant to be interpreted as meaning that the present album is objectively good.  

All that started with “Never Let Me Down.”  In that respect, this album can be thought of as one of Bowie’s most consequential.  The story does of course have a happy ending.  At some point during the “best since Scary Monsters” period, Bowie went from being a has-been to being a legend.  He achieved this during a run of albums and tours in the 1990s that received mostly positive reviews but yielded no songs that are generally considered amongst his greatest hits.  I, a fan, am very familiar with his music from this period, but casual fans would be hard-pressed to name a single Bowie song post-“Tonight” with the possible exception of, “Blackstar”.  But by the time of Bowie’s return, with “The Next Day,” he had achieved full legend status and the excitement around that album inflated fan reaction to it as much as the non-musical factors surrounding “Never Let Me Down” diluted fan reaction to the earlier album.    Although I’m sure Bowie would have preferred that “Blackstar” was not going to be his final album, that it was helped make it as strong an exit as ever existed in art.  He had fully come back, and it was no let down.    

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