“Oh -The Glass Spider had blue eyes almost like a human’s.”
The relationship between energy and quality in music is a complicated one. It only takes one listen to the National’s brilliant Trouble Will Find Me to discover that the former is not a prerequisite for the latter. But a lack of energy is also one of the most common deficiencies in music. It can turn a track you might otherwise love into one that guides you toward slumber.
Frequently, this is wrongly attributed to overproduction. It’s true that in laying a heavy hand on each element of a recording, you risk losing those ineffably human moments that have the capacity to surprise and captivate – the crack of a vocal, the mis-bending of a string. These are the elements which remind us that songs are made by people. But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a song or album that is highly produced – just listen to Bohemian Rhapsody or Thriller for proof that it can go either way.
The risk is in forgetting that a song and a performance are two separate and distinct things, of near equal importance. An interesting performance is a mix of practice and the willingness to take a chance. The art is in raising the stakes enough to make it feel fresh without crossing into the threshold of embarrassment. Few but the most sadistic audiences want to see a performer fail, but we all want to feel party to something special.
This is why improvised comedy seems funnier than an obviously contrived show. Correctly or not, we believe that we are seeing something noone has seen before. We are not enticed by restraint. For a Bowie-related example, listen to Flight of the Conchords’ Bowie in Space live, and then the made for TV version.
There is simply no magic in playing it safe.
But while there is a lot to be said in favour of energy in music, its presence is not sufficient. A thespian reading the nutritional information on a cereal box might be novel, but in the absence of substance novelty quickly loses its thrill. For the most part, this is what Bowie’s Never Let Me Down feels like. There are highlights – Time Will Crawl is quite possibly one of Bowie’s best cuts, and The Glass Spider is straight up just fucking hilarious.
But as for the rest of it… for the longest time I couldn’t form an opinion, or think of even a few words to write. Then I decided to preview some of Bowie’s later albums, but this simply disoriented me. I was going to give Never Let Me Down one final listen – one last run – to let myself really figure out what was so uninteresting about it. In the end, however, the thought was just too painful. Thankfully, I realised there is very little I can say that about the album that sums it up better than Bowie did in this interview, and so perhaps it would be best to leave you with him:
“It meant absolutely nothing to me. It didn’t make me feel good. I felt dissatisfied with everything I was doing, and eventually it started showing in my work. Let’s Dance was an excellent album in a certain genre, but the next two albums after that [Tonight and Never Let Me Down] showed that my lack of interest in my own work was really becoming transparent. My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album.
I’ve gotten to a place now where I’m not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it’s in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it’s a failure artistically, it doesn’t bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it. [laughs] In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes.”