Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Shorter Than I'd Like, Let's Dance Is Dated, But Decent, David Bowie!

The Good: What there is is largely wonderful, Intriguing poetry, Decent vocals/instrumentals
The Bad: SHORT! Some dense lyrics
The Basics: Good for what it is, Let's Dance is unfortunately short and outside the major singles has little to offer listeners now.

My October Artist Of The Month came to my desk in a pile of c.d.s from my wife with a single caveat: rate any of them less than eight out of ten and I'm leaving you! Fortunately, when I reviewed the Bowie Labyrinth soundtrack (here!), that threat was not made good on. I assembled my list of Artists Of The Month at the end of last year, on my way back home from my first meeting with the person I am now married to. Yes, my decision to immerse myself in Bowie probably had something to do with the enthusiasm for Bowie I was hearing, but it did not mean that I would lose my standards.

Moreover, it is not like I had never heard of the works of David Bowie before! I had reviewed The Best Of Bowie (here!) years ago and I generally enjoyed his works. Unfortunately, though, my standards for what makes a great album are defined in part by the compact disc standard. The result of this is that many albums that were originally released on cassette or record suffer as they do not use the full capacity of the compact disc well. Let's Dance is one such album that suffers mightily in its transfer to c.d.; this and another early '80's Bowie release could easily fit on a single c.d. Barring that, the c.d. release could have included b-sides from the singles as this album includes three monster hits for David Bowie: "Modern Love," "China Girl" and the title track.

With an anemic eight songs clocking out at under forty minutes, Let's Dance is a tough sell to those who are not already David Bowie fans. In fact, all that ultimately garners my weak "recommend" of this album is my own sense of standards: "Ricochet" and "Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)" do not appear on most of the "Best Of" albums, despite the fact that they are impressive songs. Five of the eight tracks on Let's Dance are either wonderful or definitively David Bowie, but the other three songs, "Without You," "Criminal World" and "Shake It" are so unmemorable as to not be worth writing about. This creates a terribly lopsided album for Bowie and makes it a much tougher sell than it otherwise ought to be.

But more than that, Let's Dance is not only the work of David Bowie. He wrote five of the songs on his own, co-wrote two of the others and was not involved in the writing of "Criminal World" at all. Bowie provides the lead vocals on every track and is a co-producer on the album, so this suggests that largely the album is his musical vision. He plays saxophone as well, so he is not simply a performer of his own work; he is an artist embedded at every level of the creative process.

What Bowie creates on Let's Dance is a distinct pop-rock album of the early 1980's with a dance and New Wave feel to it. Songs like "Modern Love" and "Let's Dance" (and to a lesser extent, "Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)") rely on synths, heavy dance beats and saxophones in a way that pop-rock music was experimenting with when the album comes out. "Let's Dance," the single, has one of the most recognizable beats and synth progressions of all pop-rock music. Is it great? Probably not; it is simple and designed to get listeners to dance and groove. Is it recognizable and part of the essential music scene of the time? Absolutely.

Bowie helped to pioneer the new wave synth-dance sound in the United States after the death of disco and this album helped him do it with huge radio hits. The problem listeners now run into is that the album sounds both dated and less inspired than it might have originally been. Instead of challenging or audacious, it seems silly, underproduced and outside the first three songs, unrecognizable. Indeed, "Ricochet" is too smart for the rest of the album and while "Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)" is well-written, it sounds a lot like any number of other pop-rock songs.

Perhaps even more insulting for listeners now is how similar the opening riffs of "Criminal World" are to the vastly popular "China Girl." Bowie, known for both his creativity and magnetism, seems to have hit a bit of a creative rut with writing the music on Let's Dance.

Where he does not go wrong at all is with his vocals and his lyrics. Bowie's voice is sandy and smooth on Let's Dance (both the single and the album). He is able to modulate articulately, going quiet and exuding a tone of subtle menace on songs like "Ricochet" and on "China Girl" he presents some of his most odd poetry with a beautiful sound. Bowie is careful to never overproduce his voice and on songs like "Modern Love," while the instrumentals might be synthetic and keyboard driven with a lot of electrical cleanup, Bowie's voice is natural and compelling.

On Let's Dance, Bowie goes for a sense of social consciousness that he has not always achieved on other albums. "Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)" is compelling for this reason. Based in a pretty strong analogy, Bowie looks at the conflicts in the world and sings about "See these eyes so red / Red like jungle burning bright / Those who feel me near / Pull the blinds and change their minds / It's been so long / Still this pulsing night / A plague I call a heartbeat / Just be still with me / Ya wouldn't believe what I've been thru (sic) / You've been so long / Well it's been so long / And I've been putting out fire / with gasoline " ("Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)"). Bowie makes a decent point and he makes it musical.

Fortunately, Bowie is also able to present the deeply personal on Let's Dance (in between the overplayed pop-dance numbers. He sings about relationships on "Modern Love" and on more obscure tracks. Arguably, the best he gets on relationships on Let's Dance is when he wrote "Sound of thunder, sound of gold / Sound of the devil / breaking parole / Ricochet - Ricochet / These are the prisons, these are the crimes / Teaching life in a violent new way / Ricochet - Ricochet" ("Ricochet"). Not a hit in the U.S., "Ricochet" is one of Bowie's more meaningful songs and it works for audiences today quite well as a provocative interpersonal song.

Unfortunately for Bowie, some of his lines are just plain weird. "China Girl," co-written with Iggy Pop is dense and - while poetic - contradictory. Long before it was used as a wonderful punchline on Family Guy, Bowie had listeners wondering what the heck he was talking about when he sang his lines "I stumble into town just like a sacred cow / Visions of swastikas in my head / Plans for everyone / It's in the white of my eyes . . . And when I get excited / My little china girl says / Oh baby just you shut your mouth" ("China Girl"). It is one thing to have a strong metaphor, it is another to have weird for the sake of weird.

Ultimately, Let's Dance is a study in how an old medium might make for an unfortunate transition for newer works. Listeners will enjoy what Bowie has on Let's Dance, but they are likely to want more of it and it suffers on heavy replay because there are so few songs and three in a row of the ones that are on the album were overplayed in the '80s and still end up on stations that play tracks from that period. It's a light recommend, but it is tough to not wish Bowie had put forth more on the album.

The best track is "Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)," the low point is the unmemorable "Shake It."

For other male Artists Of The Month, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Greatest Hits - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Forty Licks - The Rolling Stones
American Favorite Ballads (Boxed Set) - Pete Seeger


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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