To begin with, I have to confess that I disliked Let’s Dance from the time I first heard it until early 2016 – right around the time I first saw the Five Years documentary. In Five Years, both Let’s Dance and the album’s producer, Nile Rodgers, played significant roles and seeing that presentation was what convinced me to revisit the album. Because of that film and the expanded understanding which came with it, my curiosity was piqued. What I found was that, in part, my original impression was correct – the album IS impossibly slick and incredibly poppy, but there was more to it than JUST THAT as well.
As I once supposed, Let’s Dance is truly David Bowie’s sell-out record. When it was released in 1983, the singer conceded that point; confessing that he was nudged toward the mainstream arena and took the opportunity. Even so though, it’s perfectly apparent that while he’s embraced the medium of pop music circa 1982 whole heartedly on his fifteenth studio album – the New Wave and New Romantic movements, specifically – the singer has synthesized and manipulated them to suit his muse.
Opening with “Modern Love” is a great introduction to what Bowie had in mind for the period; amid a strong and strident beat, the singer coyly whispers sweet nothins to his audience as only a seasoned veteran can (check out the lines “I know when to go out/ I know when to stay in/ Get things done” and the come hither candor they’re delivered with) with a perfectly clean, almost danceable piano backing him. It’s a bit of fantastic bait. Bowie had never done anything so generically straightforward as “Modern Love”; the singer’s music had always featured barbs of other genres which made them stylistically rich but very effusive. “Modern Love” is different in that it is very straightforward, single-minded (almost to the point of being blunt) and proves to set the standard for the album; “Modern Love” introduces the singer as a new kind of galvanized entity which has incorporated aspects of who he’s been before but only keeps them to inform the new ideas and music.
“Modern Love” may set the stage and standard for where Let’s Dance will stand, but it is really the one-two punch of “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” which follows it that knocked the album into the stratosphere for Bowie and locked down his immortality, in many ways, as well as making many of the ideas that he’d try out over the thirty years which would follow Let’s Dance possible. First, “China Girl”: while being very fluffy and saccharine saturated on the surface (Bowie’s version of the song is even lighter and airier than Iggy Pop’s 1977 original version of the song, somehow) this song could be looked at in several different ways and cause several different conclusions to be drawn from it.
Lyrically, the song expresses an undeniable affection but the question quickly becomes,”An affection for what exactly?” At first, lines like “I’m such a wreck without my China girl” feel like words of undying devotion – but the quiver in the singer’s voice hints at desperation. Likewise, the regular references to elemental forces (storms, thunder, etc.) could be viewed as artful affectations for the powerful, senses-numbing effect of a very powerful fix taking hold; again, going back to the time and place from which Iggy Pop’s version sprang, this seems plausible and, in the end, the question becomes whether “China Girl” is a cute little pop song expressing love for a woman, or a cute little pop song about a substance: specifically, “China white” (“China white” being the colloquial vernacular for heroin).
Now, of course, it has been well-established that David Bowie was clean and substance-free by the time he released Let’s Dance, but that doesn’t mean this song wasn’t a wistful look back to seedier times wrapped in just enough ambiguity to make listeners take it at face value. Conversely, the great big single on the album is the title track – which remains a glittering culmination of many of the sounds that the singer had been developing for over a decade at that point.
Elements of the soul sound that the singer had been assembling/augmenting sing as early as 1975 come through clearly here as do the rock/r ‘n’ b strains that Bowie’d been including in his sound in songs like “Suffragette City” as well as the arrangement styles that the singer had been employing with the help of electronic production tools as early as the sessions for the Berlin trilogy (listen closely to how the drums are arranged, recorded and produced here) but mixed into a perfect pop pastiche with the help of producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers so that it doesn’t exactly fit into any one pigeonhole, but features just enough of each to hook listeners of all. From an invention/re-invention standpoint, “Let’s Dance” is absolutely brilliant even if scenesters both past and present can’t bring themselves to embrace this plastic presentation in public.
The B-side of the album follows a similar format and style to the A- (poppy, electronic-touched songs which feature plenty of references to Bowie’s older work without directly touching on any of it) but, at just over eighteen minutes long, continues to feel like an “in-out-and-done” exercise, even thirty-three years later. Even so, that doesn’t mean this B-side isn’t without its charms. “Ricochet” opens the side with walls of new wave posturing as Bowie croons out “Existentialism lite” lines like, “And who can bear to be forgotten/ March of flowers – March of dimes/ These are the prisons, these are the crimes/ Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep” which likely fared very, very well in the Eighties but feel very bound to their time now.
The greatest strength that Bowie’s music ever featured (and which was a key ingredient to the ‘timeless’ qualities about it) was always the sizeable amount of ambiguity about it. When everyone was able to listen and apply any sensibility they chose to songs like “Right,” “Fame” and “TVC 15” and then extrapolating any meaning they chose from them, it allowed people to feel as though they were a little closer to the artist because they “understood” – but the way this song is structured feels just a little too direct (in a U2 sort of way) to gain the same sort of stature.
As a result, while it’s a good song, it’s not a “good David Bowie Song.” Sadly, that’s not even a claim that “Criminal World,” which follows “Ricochet,” can make. Bowie’s penchant for covering something he viewed as cutting edge for the time period sort of backfires here because, again, while a very good song, it’s not a good Bowie song and really begins to leave listeners wondering about the fate of the B-side of Let’s Dance.
Happily, the going picks up after “Criminal World” as “Cat People” dims the lights on the sounds and thematic vision of the arrangement and overall sound which powered “China Girl” and makes an introspective turn which compliments the play of the rest of the album and leaves it feeling far less one-dimensional.
Now, let’s be perfectly clear here, “Cat People” is exciting because of the elements it utilizes to create a post-modern song. At first, the rhythm figure which drives the song resembles that of “All Along The Watchtower” but shifts quickly into a running minor-key rocker as Bowie begins putting out fires with gasoline and splitting the emotional demeanor of the song between introspective and flat-out resentful (check out lines like, “Feel my blood enraged/ It’s just the fear of losing you/ Don’t you know my name/ Well, you been so long”).
In many ways, the song doesn’t feel quite as polished as the rest of the album (there are reoccurring lines which don’t exactly fit with the other lines in the verses), but that proves to be a very attractive as a relief from the rest of the album; where the other tracks seek to be bold, “Cat People” feels more nervous and, somehow, that fits as a perfectly unusual departure. Likewise, the solo provided by Stevie Ray Vaughan stands out as being completely unlike the rest of the album and is fantastic in a ‘getaway’ sort of way.
After that, Bowie tries to mimic the plastic and danceable which was drawing a lot of notice thanks to Michael Jackson (who was riding high on the releases of both Off The Wall and Thriller at the time of Let’s Dance‘s release) with results which likely did very, very well in 1983 but feel pretty stale thirty-three years after the fact, and then the album closes out to let listeners try to absorb what they’ve just experienced. There’s no denying that, even now, it does take a minute to reach an equilibrium after having gone front-to-back with Let’s Dance because it does move so quickly and so powerfully.
So how has David Bowie’s fifteenth studio album aged, listening back, thirty-three years later? Had someone asked me that question even two years ago, I would have said that Let’s Dance ranks with Never Let Me Down as one of the greatest disappointments in Bowie’s otherwise very celebrated catalogue – but I do not make that claim now. I will say that the album has its fair share of foibles and could easily have been pared down to an EP’s-worth of great material given that it wasn’t actually a long album in the first place (half the B-side could have gone), but Bowie was never that kind of artist. True, he’d released EPs before, but they were always overtly commercial affairs – when Bowie was presenting an idea, it was presented full-length – not as an edited or truncated work.
That’s why the weak tracks here feel permissible (call them a extended denouement). In the end, Let’s Dance is still not David Bowie’s best work not matter how one slices it, but it absolutely has its place and over half the album is definitely an important inclusion in David Bowie’s songbook and certainly does have its charms.
A reissue of Let’s Dance has yet to be confirmed. Given the trend which has been occurring this year though, there’s no doubt it will be on its way.