Review Summary: The same old thing in all new drag?
What a way to enter a decade - with a new album and single that both went #1 in the UK; universal acclaim from the music press, and the privilege of dictating what direction popular music would take next, merely by osmosis. It’s safe to say Scary Monsters
is one of Bowie’s finest and well crafted records.
Although it was a conscious return to commerciality, Scary Monsters
didn’t ditch its creator’s roots. In fact, it consciously served as the introspective culmination of all of Bowie’s seventies personas and their attached characteristics and styles. Look no further than the cracked clown makeup adorning Bowie’s face on the album cover - a subtle metaphor for the inward gazing, retrospective look at his past guises which flows throughout Scary Monsters
He visits past characters such as ‘Space Oddity’s isolated protagonist, Major Tom on the album’s most successful and thrilling track, ‘Ashes to Ashes’. It’s a superbly crafted song and clever in every way - from its springy synths and off-kilter rhythm section to Bowie’s smooth vocals, it’s AAA pop song; mostly because of its sublime lyrics which transform a character from 1969 into a recovering junkie from the 80’s - itself a metaphor for the cold turkey coke addict that Bowie was as he entered the decade.
But more than anything, Scary Monsters
was a fresh and contemporary record. Bowie dipped his hand into the exclusively British New Romantic movement - which he directly inspired - and borrows their synthesisers and unconventional guitar riffs motif to craft cynical pop moments such as ‘Fashion’ and ‘Because You’re Young’. It’s tracks like the aforementioned that played a large role in blueprinting the ensuing years of British pop music - inspiring the burgeoning new wave/synth-pop explosion whilst remaining part of the zeitgeist themselves.
With the able hands of producer Tony Visconti, the returning Alomar/Davis/Murray rhythm section, Robert Fripp’s stupendous lead work and special guest guitarist, Pete Townshend appearing on one cut; it’s unsurprising that Scary Monsters
shapes up as a supremely consistent and well-crafted listen. The album is framed by both parts of the nervous ‘It’s No Game’, and moves through pristine rock tracks, polished pop and poised epics effortlessly, never seeming breakneck or lacking in cohesion.
Quite simply, Scary Monsters
is a fantastic album - featuring stellar moments such as the frenetic, childlike nightmare, ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’, the beautifully constructed ‘Teenage Wildlife’, the glistening ‘Up The Hill Backwards’, and the top class pop delights of ‘Fashion’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’. At the time of its release it was fresh and exciting, and fortunately the years have done little to erode such sentiments. Scary Monsters
would be the last classic album Bowie would release for a number of years, leaving one with a bitter final thought: if only the rest of the chameleon’s eighties material was as golden as this…