I love what Bowie did following the disappointment of Never Let Me Down. He abandoned it all to form a band and figure things out. It was obvious that he had fallen in a rut. Let’s Dance was the apple in the Garden of Eden, a stab at super fame that was too enticing not to follow. It was a great album, but it trapped his creativity (somehow Labyrinth made it out unscathed, all of those songs are perfect). You would expect him to take time off after getting so much bad press, but I like he didn’t do that. Instead, he started searching for ways to wake himself up, and he chose to do something he had never really done – play in a band! This wasn’t David Bowie, this was Tin Machine, and they all wrote the songs together.
Maybe it’s just the knowledge that it was a true band effort, but I honestly think you can tell it isn’t just Bowie. There is less Bowie than ever before. It reminds me of how the songs on Tonight had a jam-like feel to them, because these also have that same feeling (although it’s a whole lot better than that). It’s different than his typical method of songwriting. They wrote the songs, then churned them out in a take or two, leaving them untouched. Bowie wasn’t even allowed to nitpick about his lyrics, pressured to write them and sing them as written without tweaking them. A lot of them are really harsh, maybe reflecting Bowie’s state of mind at this point in his life and career, but outside of a song or two they aren’t all that special in my opinion. In fact, they’re more a hindrance than a boon, because Crack City has the worst lyric of his whole career (“they’re just a bunch of assholes with buttholes for brains”). It’s not clear what each member wrote, but my impression is that Bowie had less to do with the music and more to do with the singing and lyrics, although I’m sure his expertise in songwriting played some part and plus there are a bunch of parts that sounds like he had a hand in creating them.
Alongside The Man Who Sold the World and Scary Monsters, this is definitely his hardest album to date. The guitars are heavy. All that is thanks to Reeves Gabrels, his new collaborator and the man he’d stick with for the rest of the ’90s. There’s like a wall of guitars on this album at times, but even in all this guitar playing, there’s variety. Heaven’s In Here is leans hard on the blues, and I think I even hear slidey guitar! But it could just be regular ol’ guitar. It’s one of my least favorites, but more because I just don’t care for this style of music than the song itself which goes really hard around the end with lots of soloing and Bowie screaming. That description sounds better than the reality though. The following track is a lot better, a fast-paced three minute jam with a swirl of almost formless guitar and bass, so different from Heaven’s In Here. The drums on this album are much better than of late, but I can imagine that with even better drums this song could be cooler. It’s already got the guitars down, one playing the hook with others creating some cool effects around. Sacrifice Yrself is even more different with screeching and squealing guitars that are running up and down without even a second’s rest. It’s such a hard but fun song, and Bowie sounds tireless. I love his vocal delivery on the song and the call-back to Suffragette City. There’s also Prisoner of Love that has something really familiar about it, but I can’t quite place what it reminds me of. Maybe a bit of La Luz-style sunny garage rock. I don’t know why I name checked La Luz, I’m sure they aren’t the most important band to play that style and plus they formed like twenty years later, lol.
Believe it or not, I’d argue that this project was the biggest influence on The Next Day. I had already heard that You Will Set the World on Fire from The Next Day was like a Tin Machine rocker, but now I’m convinced that it’s not the only song branched from Tin Machine. I Can’t Read is super cool, for example. I really dig it, the woozy riff and Bowie’s equally off-center vocals. It’s definitely got a similar sound, and Amazing is another nice one that seems to have influenced The Next Day. It’s a mid-tempo rocker, but Bowie sounds so confident and sincere when he sings “it’s amazing”. Then there’s the wheezy guitar line on Video Crime is almost directly lifted from The Next Day bonus track Plan.
The best track for me is easily the closer, Baby Can Dance. It’s the only song I actually remember from this album. It rules so hard. The chorus is a lot of fun, and I like the huge separation between the verses and the chorus, with the verses much faster and a really groovy guitar melody that I’d like to explain better. Then the chorus hits, and the song slows way down and goes so pop. I love it. The bridge, too, has like a tornado of guitars hitting every kind of note the guitarists could think of. I read that Bowie compared the album to Scary Monsters, and I wouldn’t say that’s far off on this song.
There’s so much wonderful energy on this album, and it’s a real joy to listen to after the slog of Tonight and Never Let Me Down, but there are a couple of missteps. Why Bowie is so committed to souping up covers of great songs beats me, but he does it again with another John Lennon song. Working Class Hero was perfect originally, I wish Bowie would cover songs that could use a remake instead of classic songs in no need of one. There’s also Crack City (ugh) and Pretty Thing (blah), but otherwise, this was a cool album. It’s even more interesting in retrospect, because I really do think that there’s a connection between this and The Next Day. I’m even more interested in Tin Machine II now!