Scary Monsters is interesting, because it’s the album where he took the lessons he had learned with Brian Eno, the experimentation and tried his hand at making a hit album. Of course, his other albums are often thought of as his best, but they didn’t sell all that well, and that’s what Bowie wanted to do. So he changed his style of recording, focusing on being able to sell his album well, but he didn’t abandon his creative muse. I even read a funny anecdote on Wikipedia that said Bowie should have labeled all of his new albums with “the best album since Scary Monsters”, since this is where the bar is set. Low, Heroes and Lodger were well-known for Bowie’s impulsive style of song creation, making up a lot of lyrics as he went, but Bowie apparently went in and took a lot of time on the songwriting and lyrics. Despite having the time to really fine tune what he wanted to say, he’d never sounded more vulnerable and open. He’s angry, and he’s hurt, and he’s biting back. Bowie’s got a lot of bones to pick on this album. With the people who judge him, with the musicians he’s inspired that dominate the charts, with his ex-wife, but mostly with himself.
It’s No Game sets the album on the right foot, a good start following Lodger. It has Bowie screaming over a woman doing spoken word in Japanese and screeching guitars. I mentioned that Lodger featured some of Bowie’s rawest vocals, but Scary Monsters takes the cake for that one now. He twists his voice every which way here, and not just on It’s No Game. He plays with delivery, not just singing in the correct rhythm, I love how on some of the songs he sings it however he wants, stretching out one word or cutting another to the fewest syllables (my favorite example, Because You’re Young). But he’s helpless on this song, and that makes him scary, because he sounds like he has nothing to lose. I like the way the album is sequenced, because it segues well into Up the Hill Backwards, which is much less trashy but still angry, this time with his ex-wife (“I’m okay, you’re so-so”). Robert Fripp is back, but it’s different. He’s shredding, but without Eno there to tweak his parts, they have a different sound. Fripp plays just as wild and with abandon as before, but it’s much tighter. The synths too, which used to fill out every space on the album but are instead employed much more conservatively.
This is the last album with Carlos Alomar (for a bit), so I’m trying to soak up his contributions a lot while I listen to this, and Fashion has a Fame-ish groove to it that’s so funky alongside that delicious baseline. It’s the best Alomar riff on the album for me, because it’s the most obvious. He’s buried under a lot of other stuff on the other songs, but Fashion is just as groovy as Fame or Golden Years. There’s also that little beat that I mentioned way back in Diamond Dogs that sounds just like it. It’s not just last album for Alomar though, it’s the last with the band that Bowie had played with for like five years. The drums are great, I really like Dennis Davis plays. He keeps an awesome beat and he’s simple and interesting without being too showy. I love his drums on Up the Hill Backwards most (everyone is good on that song, but especially him). Then George Murray’s bass is incredible on the album. He really brings his A-game for this swan song. They were his best band for me.
There are two huge songs on this album that I love and want to talk about. First, I’ll go with Ashes to Ashes. It’s the “sequel” to Space Oddity, and it sees the astronaut in a really awful place. It’s Bowie on drugs, and he’s strung out and basically left for dead. The wonky piano that doesn’t even sound like a piano is so spacey and bizarre, Bowie in his clown get-up and his paper falsetto. He has a lot to get off his chest, and I think this song is one of the things he had to get out of himself to move on.
Then there’s Teenage Wildlife. Gosh, this song is huge and dense. It’s so weird hearing Bowie name-check himself, and every time I get to that part, I choke up a little bit. I’ve read that it’s about the musicians he inspired, but I get more of an autobiographical feeling from it, which is even harder to take. Without the thesaurus, this is Kevin Barnes-level self-hate. Every line is so visceral and imaginative, there’s a lot of feelings evoked with the way he chooses the words. Musically even, it’s a wild ride. It has a bunch of rhythm changes, and Bowie sounds even more crazed than usual, going from snorting low voice to thin falsetto during the bridge and the ending “wiiiiiiiiiiiiild”. If there’s any song that should mess you up, it’s this one.
Then the album ends with It’s No Game, this time calmer and sung only in Bowie’s low register. There’s no Japanese spoken word or frenetic guitar, and I had always wondered why he did this since the first one is objectively perfect, but I recently read an interpretation of it that I loved. I mentioned how much anger Bowie feels on the album, none more vitriolic than the opener, and at the end of the album, he has the same old problems, but he doesn’t have the same rage anymore. I think that’s sad, or maybe that’s just growing up.
I have a history with this album. My good friend in high school burned it to me on a disc, telling me it was his favorite Bowie album, and around this time all I listened to was Ziggy Stardust, so this opened up some really weird music that was wonderful different. It was a big gateway for me to get more into David Bowie. I remember talking to him about Teenage Wildlife a lot.
He gave me the one with the bonus songs, a reinterpretation of Space Oddity that I like more than the original actually, a live version of Panic in Detroit, a terrible Alabama Song, and Crystal Japan, the instrumental that sounds like it was given the Eno effect. This shows how much Bowie had learned from Eno and how much he could do on his own in this style without him. And apparently it would have been the closer had he not decided to end with a reinterpretation of the opener. I really love this song and wish it had been on an album, but I don’t know where it should have been, because It’s No Game 2 is actually a great closer, and I can’t see where it would fit on any other album. Maybe it’s just better as a single. It’s pushed along by lovely synths and alien sounds. The melody is so beautiful, like a chorus of angels, and there’s a moment of some shaken percussion for just a few seconds almost two minutes in that’s perfect. Honestly, this is one of his best instrumentals out of all the ones he did.