Tonight was not supposed to exist. David Bowie even said it himself, his intention was to make his chart-topping pop album then so whatever he wanted after that; but stardom is a trap, and Bowie stopped thinking about what he wanted and started thinking about what his fans wanted to hear. That’s when Bowie compromised his vision, that’s when he “sold out”.
While reading this book on Low, I copied down a quote by Brian Eno that perfectly identifies the problem here. Talking about Low’s unusual structure and sounds, he said, “the main problem with success is that it has a huge momentum. It’s like you’ve got this big train behind you, and it wants you to carry on going the same way. Nobody wants you to step off the tracks and start looking round in the scrub around the edges, because nobody can see anything promising there.”
Bowie was supposed to get off the tracks, but he missed his stop, and he kept moving on the train. Because of that, Tonight has a weird feel to it. Bowie hadn’t had the time to write enough songs (though he did make some demos prior to going to the studio), so he culled some of his co-written songs from Iggy Pop and a few other covers (five total) and co-wrote some other songs for the album. The only two songs credited to Bowie alone are even the two best. Guess which ones.
The whole album is so loose and chill, he hasn’t sound this way since maybe Young Americans or The Man Who Sold the World. There was a lot of jamming involved, and you can hear that in the music. I think based on all that, you have to think of Tonight as a beefier Pin Ups. Both are decent but neither are up to par with the rest of his work.
Actually, it is more enjoyable than I remember. It was supposed to be more of the same from Let’s Dance, him spinning the wheels, but while it is much lazier than previous albums, it’s not the same without Stevie Ray Vaughn’s signature guitar style. Carlos Alomar is back, but it just doesn’t sound the same because the rhythm section isn’t as focused or tight, I think. Instead, there’s a jamminess on almost every song on the album, like Bowie just let them go at it without much direction or control. The result is a lot of chill tunes, Bowie sounding older and more middle-aged than he had ever sounded.
There’s also a lot of reggae, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing (Yassassin is amazing), but it’s just lazy here. It sounds like the kind of album a band puts out on the 40th anniversary of their most popular album. Sure, he might seem happy, cool and relaxed, but it’s not at the same level of creativity as before, because it’s just pleasant. Like Tonight is super chill, the marimba is so lovely, but did we really need a slow reggae version of this song? The worst offender is God Only Knows. You thought Across the Universe was bad? Hahaha. Sure, Bowie sings in a beautiful baritone, but there is no reason to listen to this song as more than as a curiosity. It’s cheesy and like his last controversial cover, it strips what made the original amazing in favor of a lot of extra stuff – in this case, strings and backup singers and a very slow, bombastic feel. It’s the worst song on the album, but the rest are good to forgettable. I Keep Forgettin’ is trapped with middle-aged rocker syndrome, and I don’t think in the four times I’ve listened to this album I ever finished all the way to the end of Dancing with the Big Boys. It’s three minutes, but the vocal effects and the gang vocals are awful. It’s ‘80s through and through. The worst culprit is the pink panther horn line. Tumble and Twirl on on the other hand isn’t perfect, but it’s a good example of how the jamminess could benefit the song. It’s a lot of fun when it shouldn’t be.
However lazy and forgettable the album is, you can pull out two unforgettable songs from it, because Loving the Alien and Blue Jean are perfect. The lyrics are whatever, talking about how awful people in history were, but it’s in the songwriting where Loving the Alien succeeds tenfold. It’s beautiful and controlled, seven minutes of great mood and buildup to a chorus that at least vocally lives up to the title. I’ve unfortunately never studied music theory, but I think that’s a minor chord there! And the chorus of “pray” and “believing the strangest things, loving the alien” reminds me of Bowie reflecting on himself and Ziggy Stardust. Here, the strings and marimba are a boon, achieving a great balance that I wish hadn’t been taken for granted and used so liberally on the rest of the album. Blue Jean may be the perfect pop hit, but Loving the Alien is the secret gem on this album.
I read a quote calling Tonight an album that isn’t great but on relisten is more enjoyable than you remember. I can agree with that. It’s at least worth checking out for Loving the Alien and Blue Jean.