To understand Let’s Dance, you have to know why Bowie made it and what he had to do to make it. I think that’s important, because this album gets a lot of unfair and frankly pretentious hate. Although not quite the same in terms of story and style, I always associate the hate for Let’s Dance with the hate for The Beatles’ Let It Be. Both are good albums that have so-so critical reputations. Bowie wanted a hit (but maybe he doesn’t do hits), and the process he had started on Scary Monsters worked its way into the creation for this album. He had been wanting to be a pop star for a while.
Despite being creatively experimental and well-received, he wasn’t a huge star, and he wanted that. So he made what I think was probably one of the worst decisions of his career, cutting out everyone he had worked with before and creating a new band. It was a whole new reinvention, like Diamond Dogs and Young Americans before, and there’s nothing wrong with what he did to be honest. He was a musician of reinvention, but the way he did it seemed dickish. Apparently he didn’t tell his close friend and previous producer Tony Visconti that he was going to work with someone else, so when Visconti took out time to work with Bowie and called, he was told that he was not needed. Carlos Alomar was offended by the short notice that Bowie had asked him to come and apparently the fee Bowie wanted to pay him was offensive as well. This messed Bowie up creatively, cutting out his friends like that, and apparently Visconti held a grudge against Bowie for 20 years.
You see, Bowie is an incredible songwriter and musician, I mean as Pitchfork said he did Diamond Dogs almost totally alone, but one of his biggest strengths is in who he surrounds himself with. Here, he went with the pop hit king Nile Rodgers. It’s a good fit, and Nile had a big role in making the album such a huge hit. Bowie himself said that he pandered a lot to what he thought would be popular, and it worked. This album was huge, and Bowie became a huge star.
It’s been criticized as soulless and lacking in substance, but I find that to be a really elitist criticism. I understand it, but it’s under the assumption that pop music has to “mean something”, which I don’t agree with. Yes, Bowie compromised his artistic integrity for his vision, but the songs are catchy and a lot of fun. Yes, it’s strange going from the deeply personal Scary Monsters to this, but I don’t think that’s a very good fault overall when the music is so catchy. If the songwriting were bad, I could agree, but it’s really not bad.
It even opens with Modern Love, one of his best songs. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar riff immediately catches your attention, and it’s going to be a big part of this album’s sound, a blend of pop beats and blues guitar that he had never done before. This song always makes me think of Frances Ha these days, maybe my favorite movie now. I like the more minimalistic approach to this song, in comparison to his previous songs. For a while in the song, it’s just piano, drums, a little bits and that guitar riff, and there’s a lot of empty space until the sax jumps in and helps fill it up. I like the lyric style too, vague enough to be open to interpretation but at the same time clear enough to be universal. We can all hear “modern love” and have an idea of what that is.
The title track is just as fun, a danceable beat and a cool guitar hook with a great sense of quiet and loud over its 7 minutes. I like the double-tapping of the drums. Bowie can sing quiet and sexy and then shout, and it works really well. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s like a tiny echo or maybe two drums slightly out of sync. It’s a little long, so honestly I think I prefer the single version (although the album cut has an incredible sax solo battle right), which is one thing about the album I will admit. Some of the versions of the songs on this album are not as good as other versions that have been released. A huge one is Cat People, because holy cow is this one incomparable to the one featured in Inglourious Basterds. I don’t even want to listen to the one on the album, it’s incomparable. China Girl could fit into that too, a cover of his and Iggy Pop’s song they did for The Idiot, because even though I do like it a lot and maybe prefer it to Pop’s version, it is a big, cheesy pop song that lost the raw power (oops) of the original. “It’s in the white of my eyes” is the one moment of the song that I don’t like, because it has nothing on Iggy Pop’s delivery of that line. But like I said, I do like Bowie’s version more because the guitar line, though cheesy and kinda obvious, works for me, and Bowie’s kind of deadpan delivery works really well with the subject matter. I especially love the “shhhh”.
Even the non-singles are fun if lightweight. Without You is lovely, the “woo woo” and quiet sadness of it over the tropical rhythm. Criminal World’s bass beat and guitar hook are fantastic for me, I like the way Bowie sings it, and the bridge is a great inversion of the beat as well. Shake It is a teaser for the silly kind of songs like Magic Dance and Chilly Down from Labyrinth, and it’s a fun and inconsequential way to end the album. Ricochet isn’t quite as good, and even Bowie admitted that Nile Rodgers completely changed it from the demo in a way that Bowie didn’t like as much as his original version.
What’s also interesting about the album is that Bowie only sings, he doesn’t play sax or anything else, and I think that he really wanted to concentrate on creating Bowie the singer instead of Bowie the musician and songwriter. Let’s Dance may not be your thing if you don’t like this kind of pop music, but it’s blues-pop fusion and it’s pop music by David Bowie, so his voice (literally and figuratively) is still strong here. It’s just fun dance music, you know?