Bowie let me down (sorry). You know when you listen to Tonight, you hear that it’s the barest minimum of effort. It took longer to make than Let’s Dance, but the songs sound so sloppy. That’s not the case with Never Let Me Down. It sounds like the album cover. You can hear that Bowie tried really hard, he put in a ton of effort to regain some of the respect he had lost. He played instruments on the album again, there was only one cover (another Iggy Pop song, ugh), and he started playing again with different vocal styles. It’s supposed to be a “back to basics” album, a return to his rock roots that he never really ever had. That’s what makes it so sad, because Tonight is easily thrown away the same way Pin Ups is, in my opinion, but Never Let Me Down was not like that.
I love to read about the collaborators on the albums. Stevie Ray Vaughn was fantastic on Let’s Dance, Pete Townshend on Scary Monsters, Robert Fripp on Scary Monsters and “Heroes”, etc. Peter Frampton plays lead on this album, but he’s such a nonentity. Can anyone else hear what he adds to the album? Where’s the talk box? I admit that I’m not really familiar with him outside of Comes Alive! and his famed talk box playing. There’s also Carlos Alomar who was also back on Tonight, but while I could hear his contributions clearly on Scary Monsters, I have no idea what he did here.
It sounds pretty basic actually – sonically at least. The drums are so boring, I don’t think they change for the entire album. It just sounds so flat and boring to me, lackluster production that’s crammed full of stuff. I’ve already listened to this album way too many times. It’s very far from perfect, but I wonder how they would sound had they been done properly. I don’t think so, but they would definitely be better. There are a lot of good moments, potential that hasn’t been mined or only partially so.
Day-In Day-Out is both the opener and the lead single, and it features some of the worst lyrics. Rhyming “money” with “honey” is flat-out unforgivable (and I have a huge tolerance for so-so lyrics, I mean, I love Weezer after all). But! from the get-go, I love Bowie’s vocals. He goes all “hoo hoo (hoo hoo)” and I love the way he sings “come on little baby!”. There’s also a great “lalalala” backing vocal thing going on and some instruments that sound like they were lifted right out of one of the Labyrinth songs. The chorus is terrible, and the lyrics are bad, but it’s worth listening to for Bowie’s singing.
Time Will Crawl is supposed to be the best song on the album, and it has a really neat melody, which is probably one of the best on the album. It beats you over the head with it, but it’s good. I would love to hear this one without those awful drums, because the synth sax section is great in an over the top ‘80s way that I love.
Beat On Yr Drum is actually a lot of fun. Yes, the lyrics are really creepy (especially since Bowie said it’s about loving little girls), but the melody is really cool. It opens really well with some well-chosen synth chords soaking up Bowie’s singing before it’s traded out for the ear worm of a chorus. I actually like the way he sings “di-iii-iiiish”. It reminds me of “beeeheeeheee mi pleasure puss”.
On this album, Bowie started to sing more like the Bowie of his late career. On Never Let Me Down and Shining’ Star, he sings in a high paper thin falsetto that’s actually really cool though at first off-putting. Both of these songs are also pretty good. Never Let Me Down is a ballad for his longtime assistant, and it has some neat things going on with the backwards sighs during the chorus and the reverberating guitar trembling under the whole song. Shinin’ Star is my favorite on the album, to be honest. I promise you it will never leave your head, and even Mickey Rourke and Bowie rapping in the middle is pretty fun.
On Zeroes, Bowie starts channeling The Beatles pretty hard. It’s not all that great, but he creates a melody and chorus that sounds just like John Lennon had written it, and when he goes falsetto on “yoooouuuuu”, he sounds just like the early Beatles. He even has a sitar and the same kind of drums George Harrison loved in the outro of the song. It’s pretty cool even if it’s not all that great of a song.
The back half of the album is whatever. New York’s in Love to Bang Bang are so forgettable that I have nothing at all to say about them. They’re the worst, because you can complain about any of the other songs, but these are so unremarkable to barely even register.
And there’s Glass Spider, the centerpiece of the album. This wasn’t the first time or the last time he did spoken word. It was strange but worked well on Diamond Dogs, but this was the most laughable part of the album for me (I lost it at “tiny wails… tiny cries…”). It’s ridiculously serious, and I watched some videos of the Glass Spider tour (I would have seen that, actually, it looked amazing), and there’s actually a giant spider on stage that Bowie descends from like Kanye West later did on the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tour. It’s ridiculous, and the song itself is lousy.
I’ve listened to Never Let Me Down more times than anyone actually should. It’s definitely not a great album, but is it that bad? In a different context, some of these songs would have been really cool. The first side is decent, though nothing even touches the heights of Loving the Alien or Blue Jean. Overall, I actually like it more than Tonight. I won’t return to the album, but I can easily imagine myself coming back to any of the first seven songs (except for Glass Spider, to be honest). It doesn’t totally deserve the reputation it has.