Thursday, 29 November 2007

Top 100 Albums - #57: Scary Monsters (1980)

David Bowie's fifth appearance is in the form of Scary Monsters, the album which ended the 'classic era' and which is often called his last great album.¹Having reached the apex of his cocaine-induced madness on Station To Station (1976, #100), Bowie relocated to Berlin to dry out and live with Brian Eno. Over the next three years Bowie produced a series of albums with Eno as producer which became known as the Berlin Trilogy. The first offering, Low (1977), was a introspective onslaught, showcasing Bowie's fears of addiction and repeating himself ('Always Crashing In The Same Car'). "Heroes", which followed later in the same year, combined jagged rock songs with unhinged, edgy soundscapes, utilising Eno's love of ambient music. The final album, Lodger (1979), was more pop-friendly and combined the innovations of the last two records with the pop edge which would be embraced by the New Wave in the early-1980s. Having battled his demons and won, Bowie sought to draw together this new, edgy sound with the modified glam rock which had made him a star.

If, then, this album is supposed to epitomise the best of Bowie in every way, we begin by getting the full brunt of his strange(st) side. After a serious of strange noises, 'It's No Game (Part 1)' screeches into life with frenetic Japanese. Bowie, too, is screeching, screaming the lines from beyond the top of his range in what amounts to a failed Roger Waters impression. It's an off-putting start to the record, chiefly because of the horrible vocal delivery, but then because the rhythm section is so good that you realise that he's really ballsed it up.

Having set through the self-indulgent guitar solo at the end of the last track, we are rewarded for our patience in leaps and bounds. Not only is 'Up The Hill Backwards' miles more focussed, working in harmony with the rhythm section instead of straining against it with every chord. It is also a much better effort from a lyrical perspective. The beginning of the second verse - While we sleep, they go to work/ We're legally crippled, it's the death of love - does not make the most sense, but like all of Bowie's best work it's not so much that it is easily comprehendible, but it has a poetic, philosophical quality to it.

The title track, 'Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)', corrects the self-indulgent guitar of 'It's No Game (Part 1)' by imprisoning it behind simple but aggressive acoustic guitar, just as he had done on Hunky Dory (1971). Bowie channels into his voice all the paranoia of the Berlin era and then uses the cow bell to create a heightened sense of alarm - all the while producing a more-than-adequate pop song. Wait until 3:12 and you will hear the beginning of a great siren guitar. The only problem with this song is, unless the radio edit, it comes equipped with an annoying, self-reverential guitar solo and some irritating vocals to boot.

But fear not, for already we have reached the album's best track. 'Ashes To Ashes' is, quite simply, amazing. It's splendidly produced: everything is tight and in proportion without feeling artificial - there are no drum machines, noise gates or looped soloes here. The guitar and keyboard parts manage to be incredibly kooky and yet are insanely catchy. And lyrically, this is Bowie at his best. He is pouring out his soul, dressed as a clown to hide his inner uncertainty. The best lines are found before the second chorus: I've never done good things/ I've never done bad things/ I never did anything out of the blue, woo-oh/ Want an axe to break the ice/ Want to come down right now. The words are laced with irony and yet are so tender, they perfectly portray the tortured genius, shapeshifting from one personality to another and still haunted by his past.

'Fashion' is a much more overt pop song. Just like Pete Townshend did on 'Slip Kid', Bowie takes an unusual rhythm and them, against prediction, sets the guitar and drums on the off-beats. It's brilliant, compromised only by some flatter lyrics from Bowie - you shout it while you're dancing on the-he dance floor has never sounded right and never will. Again, there's an annoying outro, but at least this one has the courtesy to have some structure, as well as a New Wave edge.

'Teenage Wildlife' sees Bowie finally getting the guitars properly reigned in, with multiple and layered parts. At first listen, it's a meandering ramble through Bowie's anxious subconscious. After a few spins, however, the lyrics begin to unravel themselves and leap out as you. Again, we find Bowie in a combined state of anxiety and self-reverrence, passing himself off as, in his own words, same old thing in brand new drag. This is a stand-out track for the reason that it doesn't stand out - unless 'Fashion' it has no pop preachiness to it, it rests in the background and lets you examine it for yourself with open minds and ears.

So far, then, Scary Monsters, has been an album of very few genuine slip-ups. No sooner have I said that, however, than we come to the turkey that is 'Scream Like A Baby'. It's roughly the same length as 'Up The Hill Backwards', but it's no way as accessible. Beginning like a ZZ Top B-side, it can't decide what it is - the bass is heavy enough for it to be lite punk, but there are pop rock keyboards and obnoxious harmonies. It's a land of confusion for Bowie, almost as much as 'Kingdom Come' is. At the outset, this would appear to be better - but it isn't. Bowie's delivery is so nasal you could have sworn it was Dylan. The backing vocals are clich├ęd and serve little purpose except to remind us of the lesser side of Young Americans (1975, #73). Definitely one, or two, to skip over.

'Because You're Young' features Pete Townshend on guitar (hence the link earlier), overlaid with a strange kind of falsetto organ and fairly standard drums. Bowie's delivery on this one is graver, more formal, and a lot less nasal, thank heavens. Unlike the others, this is a toe-tapper which sustains your interests despite the lack of a heavy beat or prominent guitar hooks (Townshend's role is reduced, either by the song itself or his substance abuse). And yes, hearing Bowie holler A millions scar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ars is well worth it.

The album is wrapped up with 'It's No Game (Part 2)'. Here the Japanese vocalist and high-pitched screeching have been removed, leaving behind a pop rock song with a relaxed feel to it. Bowie almost mouths the lyrics, with hardly a care in the world. During the verse, at least. The chorus feels a lot better for these production changes, the lyrics have more time to resonate, and we get an extra verse in there as well - even if it is bookended by more strange tumbling objects.

Scary Monsters is one of Bowie's more consistent albums, mainly because it takes the best bits of everything he had done previously and layered them into new creations. Because of this it could be seen in turn as a greatest hits-in-kind, the first 'neo-classical' album, and a brilliant record in its own right. It doesn't just take all the best riffs and beats and reassemble them into something resembling a song - this is not the album equivalent of 'Los Endos' (see my review of A Trick Of The Tail (1976, #76)). Instead, it takes the best elements of the old and reinvents them to create a new sound, a welcome, if uncertain, departure from Lodger - in that respect it's quite close to Genesis' Duke, released the same year. But perhaps Scary Monsters is best viewed in its context - as the closing chapter to an extremely innovative decade of music, with a Bowie poised on the brink of another reinvention.

3.80 out of 5

References
¹ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, 'Scary Monsters', http://wc05.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&token=&sql=10:0vfwxq8aldhe. Accessed on November 29 2007.

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