The beginning of the end. At this point in time, David Bowie’s melodic well – never as deep as his greatest fans want to believe – is running dangerously low; when people call this the last good David Bowie album, they’re referring only to the first half of the album.
On the second side, we have a recreation of “’Heroes’” in the overly long “Teenage Wildlife” that’s still the best of the bunch because Robert Fripp’s solos are like tiny supernovas hidden in the cold space (lyrically, it seems to me to be a putdown on all the synth-pop/new waves like Gary Numan who were only made possible because of David Bowie, as on the lyrics like “A broken-nosed mogul are you one of the new wave boys” and “As ugly as a teenage millionare pretending it’s a whizz-kid world,” but if it is a putdown, it’s not a very good one and if it isn’t, then it doesn’t mean shit). Next, “Scream Like A Baby” has this excellent descending keyboard line at 0:44 mark, but it’s not enough to keep the track together, so David Bowie resorts to resurrecting the vocal gimmicks that he had relied on in his The Man Who Sold the World (and earlier) days – not a good thing. Pete Townsend and the oscillating synth help a good job getting “Because You’re Young” to its climax, but they’re small pleasures. And the closer, a tamer version of “It’s No Game (Part 1),” only accentuates what I meant previously by the lack of melodies.
And though the melodies are packed into the first half of the album, let’s be clear: they’re often not original or memorable on their own. David Bowie’s career has always owed a lot to people not named David Bowie, but the successes of songs like “Up the Hill Backwards” and “Fashion” are practically fully indebted to those people. I could almost make the same case for “It’s No Game (Part 1)” and “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” but David Bowie was wise enough to dress those salads up: the former has him shredding his voice in a manner that makes the climax of “’Heroes’” seem tame, as if to match the urgency of Robert Fripp’s guitar and the Japanese woman’s voice that sounds like it’s the recording of a frantic news coverage and the latter has him employing a Cockney accent as if he knew he’d completely disappear behind Robert Fripp’s guitar otherwise (when he says: “Waiting at lights, know what I mean,” it’s delivered in such an assured way that I actually think I might, even if I don’t). Though 1995’s1.Outside gets a bit of praise, it’s industrial crunch is never as successful as these two songs. In other words, only “Ashes to Ashes” feels like a classic David Bowie song from this so-called classic David Bowie album, maybe because it’s the sequel to another classic David Bowie song.
And despite what I said about the songs, the choruses of “Up the Hill Backwards” are tunefully sung, and Robert Fripp’s guitar solo outro is half-covered in this acoustic chug that makes it seem like you really are running up said hill. Meanwhile, David Bowie’s non-English bits help make “Fashion” fun, whether it’s the “Uuh-rah” cadences, the “Beep beep”’s (the most affecting since “Drive My Car,” maybe) (and I’ve used the word “recreate” and its synonyms a ton of times in this review, so it’s worth noting that David Bowie had an unreleased song from 1970 called “Rupert the Riley” that also used “Beep beep”‘s), or the “fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion”’s. Meanwhile, it’s interesting to hear Robert Fripp drop his mechanical solos on a funkier number and still hear it work, and it’s even better to hear the guitar lines in the choruses – the most melodic bit of the entire track. These reasons, plus the bass on both, plus the drumming in the outro of “Fashion,” help make them the brightest songs on an otherwise dark album.
On that note, I really like this bit from Rolling Stone’s Debra Rae Cohen’s review, “No one breaks through on Scary Monsters. No one is saved. Major Tom is left unrescued. The tortured, reprocessed gays of “Scream like a Baby” can’t save their friends — or their badge of difference. The human mannequins of “Fashion” can’t stop marching. Indeed, the kids in “Because You’re Young” can’t even tell each other apart[.] Instead, beguiled by the hope of hope, they track the wasted remnants of romance (“A million dreams/A million scars”) until youth, too, is wasted.” It certainly is a dark album, I just wish it was a better one.