You know, I did not expect to like Tin Machine as much as I ended up liking them. I expected a so-so classic rock group that I would immediately forget, but on both of these two albums there were a whole lot of jams. It’s kind of crazy how poorly received they were, especially this album which seems almost like a lost record at this point. Their first album is so different from their second album, too. Tin Machine’s debut was supposed to be stripping the music making process of all the bells and whistles, breaking bad habits so that new ones could be relearned. Bowie started this project, because he was unhappy and had lost interest in his own music. So, he formed this rock group that hammered out these guitar jams (so many guitars) in just a few takes and made rough draft lyrics. I can see how rejuvenating that would be. Well, Tin Machine II is a huge upgrade. It’s obvious from the very beginning of the first song that they spent more time in the studio working the songs out. The songs are more interesting, having the opportunity to be fleshed out beyond just GUITARS with Bowie screaming over them. In a word, the songs are more “Bowie”. Obviously, it’s not quite that way, because almost all the songs were co-created, but Bowie’s influence is much larger – at least, it sounds that way.
From the start of Baby Universal, you hear that this isn’t just more of the same. Gone is the wall of guitars and the melody totally reliant on one hook. In are Bowie’s weird vocals and sounds. I mean, this song sounds like it’s from outer space. Bowie even sings as an alien who’s come down to Earth. The verses are so nice, with Bowie singing so much better and more like himself than on the last record. The chorus is still really guitar-centric and not quite as good as the verses, but the verses really are that good.
That’s what makes Tin Machine so unique though, it’s a band effort, so there’s pieces of Bowie and pieces of Reeves Gabrels. Now, I don’t know what each person did and didn’t write, but I don’t think Reeves is as stellar a songwriter as Bowie, because his guitar still sounds a little basic at times, although he does has some variety to his playing, and this album is much more varied than the first. There’s a better quiet/loud dynamic, more flow from song to song, like going from the Roxy Music cover to the heady folky song Amlapura. Really you can hear so distinctly the signs of future Bowie in this group. I said that the debut must have been an influence on The Next Day, but in Tin Machine II you can hear some of the sounds that Bowie would recreate again on Heathen and Reality. I think even Bring Me the Disco King was originally recorded around this time, or maybe a little closer to Black Tie White Noise. But I’m certain that I can hear signs of Heathen in Amlapura, which might be why I like it so much. Goodbye Mr. Ed is the biggest sign pointing to the future. It’s reflective in the way Slip Away is while playing out musically similar to later songs.
Bowie really worked out some interesting vocals that I’m so pleased about, also. On Baby Universal he sang like an alien. You Belong in Rock & Roll, a great slow jam very reminiscent of later Heathen songs in my opinion, has him singing in a low register but with little range like the way Matt Berninger sings with the National, and he does that until the chorus where suddenly he sounds like Jeff Lynne from ELO or something, it’s so wild. Two of my favorite tracks on the album are the weirdest. You Can’t Talk is such a trip. The vocal hook sounds like it has five Bowies fighting for #1. There’s one Bowie singing rationally, then another takes his place sounding like an alien before another breaks him off to take it into space. It’s not just Bowie going crazy, but the whole band feels so edgy and energetic. And there’s Shopping for Girls which has probably the best hook/melody on the whole album. It’s a song about child sex slavery in Thailand, and the lyrics are so creepy, but the song is so interesting. I love the chord progression during the verses.
Another band member, Hunt Sales, sings on two of the songs. Sorry isn’t all that bad, but Stateside is easily the worst. He’s not just an unpleasant singer, but it’s not all that great of a song, more like a low point of the first album. Sorry is nice, if very forgettable.
Strange vocals aren’t the only thing that’s back though. There’s sax again! Bowie plays sax on album for the first time since Scary Monsters, and it’s a very welcome return. It is a highlight of a so-so song like Sorry, but it just makes some of the already good songs even better, like when it’s filling out the low end on You Belong in Rock & Roll or making me feel nostalgic for old Bowie on the closing one minute jam Hammerhead.
I’d recommend not sleeping on this album. If guitar isn’t for you, you don’t need to listen to their debut even though it has some cool songs, but you absolutely shouldn’t sleep on Tin Machine II, especially if you like Heathen as much as I do. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start and a mine for later creativity.