There’s been a new David Bowie album out this month. That’s a strange sentence to type, knowing that the man himself passed away more than two years ago, but it’s true: Never Let Me Down ’18 released on October 12th as part of a new compilation by Parlophone Records.
It’s not a new album in the conventional sense; there are no songs on this one that haven’t been heard before. In fact, it’s a track-for-track re-release of Bowie’s 1987 album Never Let Me Down – an album that Bowie himself called his “nadir” and “an awful album”. Why all the fuss then? Well, this is no simple remaster; the album has been remade from the ground up, with almost every musical element except for Bowie’s vocals re-arranged and re-recorded in an attempt to improve on the late musician’s work.
This does raise some ethical questions. Though Bowie expressed a desire to “redo” the album before his death, is it fair to do so in his name? Can one improve somebody else’s art? And is it right to profit from the attempt? The cynic in me would believe that Parlophone are wringing the legacy of David Bowie dry. However, a slew of Bowie’s former friends and collaborators were involved in this release. It features Mario J. McNulty (who worked directly with Bowie on remixing the track ‘Time Will Crawl’ back in 2008), Reeves Gabriels (Bowie’s bandmate during the Tin Machine years), Sterling Campbell (who toured with Bowie’s band for over a decade) — the list goes on. I can only imagine that, for most of the people responsible, Never Let Me Down ’18 was an earnest (though perhaps misguided) attempt to vindicate one of Bowie’s lesser works.
So, how did they do?
Right off the bat there are some promising results. The synth horns and strings on track one (Day in Day Out) have been replaced with recorded instruments, and they sound delicious. Track two (Time Will Crawl) follows in strong fashion with a new emphasis on guitar and drums that vamp up the original’s intensity. These first two tracks are fresh and exciting yet feel authentic to the mood of Bowie’s originals.
Unfortunately, this feeling of authenticity slips as we move further into the album. The stadium-like drama of Zeroes is eschewed for a more down-to-earth mix. The campy synth of Glass Spider is stripped and replaced with an industrial rock soundscape that calls Nine Inch Nails to mind. Mickey Rourke’s ridiculous rap bridge (yes, that’s a thing) on the track Shining Star (Makin’ My Love) has been scrapped entirely, replaced with new vocals by Laurie Anderson. While personal taste will dictate whether or not these changes make for a better collection of songs, the character of the album has undeniably been altered. Eighties bombast has been replaced with something more modern-sounding and occasionally drab.
Listening to the two albums side by side, it is evident that the remake misses something of the original’s charm. And yet, there are some very interesting changes to be found on the new version. Is Never Let Me Down ’18 an improvement on the original? No. But does it offer some lively new interpretations of old classics? Yes.
Newcomers should stick to Bowie’s original, warts and all, but this version of Never Let Me Down offers a fun new take for fans and enthusiasts.