David Bowie was a perennial risk-taker throughout his career, and that skill made him a majestic talent. Nevertheless, his intrinsic ability to think outside of the box also was his most significant Achilles heel and sometimes saw the Starman ending up drowning in his own creativity, veering too far out to sea in the bid for avant-garde treasure.
Bowie was the first to admit that not everything he did throughout his career struck gold. The early years of his journey to stardom were full of shortcomings that made him the mercurial artist he would grow to become, but even when Bowie had the world at his feet, there was the occasional slip-up.
Everybody expected his career to carry on in a faultless fashion after asserting himself as the most exhilarating and sparkling artist on the planet throughout the 1970s. However, Bowie couldn’t carry on defying expectations forever, and even he found himself in a creative lull — with more misses than hits in the decade that would follow. Despite what revisionists will tell you, the ’80s and ’90s were a tough space for Bowie to operate in.
This period of Bowie’s career, in truth, was a very odd time for the Starman. It’s strange to look back at someone of Bowie’s brilliance ever suffering creatively, but people had started to write The Thin White Duke off. He hadn’t been a darling of the critics since the 1983 effort Let’s Dance, and the two albums which followed momentarily tarnished his messiah status.
Bowie knew himself that Tonight and Never Let Me Down weren’t up to scratch, and he didn’t need critics to inform about his decline. What made Bowie different to most artists who fall into the trough is that he wasn’t ‘most artists’ and fought his way back to the top of the pile.
“[The great public esteem at that time] meant absolutely nothing to me,” Bowie reflected to Rolling Stone in 1995. “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.”
Bowie had lost sight of who he was during this stage of his career, and his output reflected that. His mystique had dissipated, and there were question marks about whether he would ever make another masterpiece. Of course, he would, but it wasn’t plain sailing, and 1995’s Outside would mark the moment that Bowie truly recaptured his form.
His other musical faux-pas throughout that sorrowful decade didn’t infuriate him in the same way as Never Let Me Down because even though they weren’t perfect — they still managed to reflect his artistry. Bowie could accept making mistakes when his heart thought it was the right thing to do, but seemingly, deep down, he always knew Never Let Me Down was a misstep even before he released it.