At the risk of beating a dead horse…
From metacritic.com, a survey of the reviews for the latest David Bowie Box set, Loving the Alien…
While most professional reviews (and there aren’t terribly many of them so far) are generally positive, I’m always intrigued by the most negative reviews.
It’s not that I’m a sadist -as I wrote, I liked the boxed set and felt the new version of the much maligned Never Let Me Down album was a tremendous improvement- but I am intrigued by those who don’t like something I may like and the reasons why they feel that way.
In that spirit, here we have Stephen Dalton’s review of the boxed set found on loudersound.com:
Mr. Dalton clearly doesn’t think very highly of Mr. Bowie’s releases during this period of time and his conclusion regarding the new version of Never Let Me Down is quite negative. Here are his thoughts, from the link above, regarding the “new” version of that album:
So is it really possible to reverse-engineer a ‘lost’ avant-rock album from a lacklustre soft-rock misfire? Arguably. On the positive side, Bowie’s vocals are now generally clearer and more sympathetically framed, especially on the sweetly romantic title track. But adding discordant drones, minor-key shifts and sci-fi trip-hop rumbles to thin material like Day-In Day-Out or Shining Star (Makin’ My Love) is more cosmetic gimmick than inspired transformation. Trying to salvage Bowie’s most derided album is an admirably ambitious experiment, but low-grade source material was always going to be an obstacle. Some turds just cannot be polished.
Look, I totally understand those who look down on this boxed set and, specifically, this new version of Never Let Me Down.
The fact of the matter is that when compared to the previous boxed sets, where Mr. Bowie first made his career starting with his glam rock era and following it up with some truly adventurous work (including the justifiably lauded Berlin trilogy), one can look at this era in his musical career as a step down.
And I’m not going to argue that point: It is!
Mr. Bowie hit the proverbial ball out of the park with Let’s Dance, a slick, radio friendly, and eminently enjoyable collection of wonderful pop songs. To my mind, that was a terrific album and it moved Mr. Bowie from being a famous but rather “cult” figure into the mainstream and his success was white hot.
The problem came afterwards.
Mr. Bowie clearly lost his way following the success of the album. Tonight the album that followed Let’s Dance, was what I consider merely adequate. There were some terrific songs on it, specifically Loving the Alien (which this boxed set used as its name) and the ultra-cool Blue Jean. I also enjoyed Tonight and Neighborhood Threat. But after that? Well… I can’t get into much of the rest. Perhaps the album’s worst song is Bowie’s remake of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. It was daring, to say the least, to take on of that band’s most beloved works and try to redo it, but Bowie here seemed so out of his element.
Which brings us to Never Let Me Down, again. I can’t help but feel that Bowie was burning the proverbial candle at both ends at this time. He was appearing in films and doing soundtrack songs (included on this boxed set are the absolutely terrific songs This is Not America and Absolute Beginners, along with his songs for the movie Labyrinth, which he co-starred in). This, along with a grueling concert schedule, must have taken their toll and I’ve read (but take it with a grain of salt) that he was exhausted during the making of NLMD.
Could this be why he later stated that he didn’t feel like he had much control over the album? Did he entrust too much of its creation to others?
One could think so, though I strongly suspect that if the album had been a hit, Mr. Bowie would welcome the adulation.
But, of course, that wasn’t the case. NLMD was a critical flop. As the years passed, most people had a sour view of the album and that era for Bowie’s music.
I can totally see why someone would scoff at this boxed set and feel that “fixing” NLMD is the equivalent of “polishing a turd”.
My opinion remains. I didn’t like NLMD upon its original release. As I wrote in my review of the boxed set, I felt that album was too scattershot, too all-over-the-place. Having said that, I felt there were good songs to be found here and there. It wasn’t a complete train wreck but it seemed something was lost between the various song’s creations and the ultimate cut used.
Which, to my mind, has been fixed tremendously with this “new” version of the album.
Will this new NLMD come to be viewed as another landmark Bowie album, one initially scoffed at a la 1. Outside, which was lambasted by professional critics upon its initial release but which now many people consider among his very best later releases?
I don’t know.
But it’s the way things go, isn’t it? Sometimes things are viewed very negatively when initially released and, over time, people come to view a certain worth to the product. Or it may never be rehabilitated.
We’ll just have to wait and see.