David Bowie: “Tonight” (1984)
This is the second in Bowie’s trilogy of hit ‘80s albums upon which he now looks back with regret. I’ll admit some amount of dread as this album was approaching — especially after re-listening to “Let’s Dance” and realizing how poorly it fared against Bowie’s previous work — because I remember really enjoying “Tonight” back when I was a teen. I was afraid that now I’d end up hating it.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Granted, we’re still deep in the ‘80s mainstream here, with big, gated drums — natch, since that sound’s inventor, Hugh Padgham, is producing this time around — and syrupy arrangements, continuing the thread from “Let’s Dance”. That said, I find Padgham’s production much more engaging than Nile Rodger’s; there’s a depth here that’s missing on the previous album, with more “air” surrounding each song. I’ve always liked Padgham’s work; he’s engineered and/or produced XTC and Police albums that I love. You can hear his sonic signature on tracks like the Iggy-Pop-penned “Neighborhood Threat”, which has a definite “Synchronicity II” vibe.
“Blue Jean” is definitely the standout track here, one for he few songs on the album written solely by Bowie and which has remained in his live repertoire ever since. Whatever else one may think about “Tonight”, the album’s existence is justified by this song. It’s light and danceable, yet there’s a subtle edge present that stamps it as uniquely Bowie.
I also think “Loving the Alien” and “Tonight,” Bowie’s duet with Tina Turner, are fantastic. Bowie has said that “Loving the Alien” is too dark for this otherwise lightweight album, and while I can see that, I think therein lies its strength. For a not-so-brief moment (seven minutes), we’re almost back in “Ashes to ashes” territory. As for “Tonight”, I honestly get a little choked up every time I hear it. I think it may be one of the finest duets Bowie’s ever done. It’s also, IMO, a massive improvement over Pop’s original version, which included a spoken-word introduction that frames it as a serenade to a girlfriend currently overdosing on heroin. Omitting the into, I think, allows broader application of the song’s sentiment, shifting things from pure tragedy to a sort of melancholic solace.
Beyond these three, I will give props to “Tumble and Twirl”, a raucous Carnevale of a track that’s a hoot to listen to, as long as you give Bowie a bit of a pass for the lines about “dusky mulattoes”.
The other tracks on “Tonight” range from forgettable (ironically, a cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “I Keep Forgettin’”) to saccharine (a cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”) to just plain ‘80s bombast (“Dancing with the Big Boys”). None are truly bad; I find the album as a whole very listenable. Still, it has neither the hit-songwriting-prowess of “Let’s Dance”, nor the challenging experimentation of Bowie’s previous work.
So, instead of listening to the album, I suggest watching the long-form video “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”, directed by Julien Temple of “The Filth and the Fury” fame and “Absolute Beginners” infamy; enjoy the best song on the album and watch Bowie flex his comedic acting chops.