There are all kinds of well-established career tropes in pop history. There’s the visionary wunderkind debut, when an artist arrives fully-formed and with a whole new sound completely figured out. There’s the dreaded sophomore slump, when an already beloved and respected act fails to capture the same fire as their introduction. There’s the “difficult” and more experimental third album. There are wayward mid-career rock bottoms, and there are comeback albums; there are the albums where once restless musicians settle into some core sound that will carry them through the rest of their years, and there are late-career rekindlings of old brilliance. And then, for a certain echelon of iconic artists, there is a whole other beast: The Last Great Album.
The Last Great Album is a line in the sand. It demarcates eras, when an artist’s creative prime ended. It’s, theoretically, when a foundational, transformative musician reaches the end of their great evolutions; the Last Great Album denotes that whatever followed was either somehow shallower and less inspired, or that an artist’s compass went completely awry and they lost the magic that had coursed through their younger years. The Last Great Album is a shorthand divider for the careers of classic rock and pop artists, who burned brightly through the ‘60s or ‘70s or maybe even ‘80s and eventually, like everyone does, succumbed to middle age and life no longer seeming as vivid and tumultuous. So in turn, all of the albums that follow, the ones that are grasping for renewed relevance or striving to stay in touch or maybe even the ones that are pretty good retreads of the past, are all compared to the Last Great Album. Everything becomes a minor career revival, the best album since the Last Great Album.
David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) came out in September of 1980, 40 years ago tomorrow. And for 50 to 75 percent of the time since, it’s been known as “David Bowie’s last great album.” Retrospective reviews and biographies harp on it, while, naturally, every half-decent Bowie release in subsequent decades was proclaimed “the best album since Scary Monsters.” Many of Bowie’s generational peers have similar albums, but perhaps there was always something more glaring about it within Bowie’s career: The musician that once shed skins so easily, flailing through pop stardom in the ’80s and exploring new genres in the ’90s but never being able to live up to the groundbreaking work he did in the ’70s. Just before Bowie’s death, the transfixing mortality meditation of Blackstar may have finally rearranged things so that Bowie’s last album was also his last great album. But in the grand scheme of Bowie’s career, the story still pivots around Scary Monsters — the album that marks the end of at least one creative peak that now, having spent all these years with the burden of simply being the “last great album,” may also be an altogether underrated work in relation to the more canonized Bowie albums.
Scary Monsters arrived after the Berlin trilogy, an adventurous and massively influential stretch of albums that have only become more and more hallowed as the decades have passed. That era was obviously fruitful, but Bowie changed things up for Scary Monsters, decamping to New York and spending more time crafting the songs in an attempt to get something more direct. As a result, Scary Monsters would eventually be hailed as a successful marriage between Bowie’s experimental impulses and his songwriting acumen. Its infectious art-rock situated it perfectly at the dawn of new wave — a genre obviously heavily indebted to Bowie — yet at the same time it seemed to carry the whole preceding decade with it. It was a capstone, summary, and new beginning all at once, emerging from Bowie’s dizzying ‘70s run.
While Scary Monsters was a more grounded, rock-oriented album compared to its immediate predecessors, that was still only true relative to Bowie’s world at that moment. All of his transformations were swirling and colliding here. Glam rock songs were dressed up with hissing technological sheen. Remnants of the Thin White Duke’s plastic soul instead became the sound of melted plastic and warped, raw humanity. The chilly atmospherics of Heroes were now emerging into a new light, flashing and screaming and sputtering. The album seemed to underline how far Bowie had journeyed across the ’70s and how all of this somehow still lived within him. Hearing the different versions of Bowie at play on Scary Monsters can still, four decades later, make you reconsider his arc and inspire awe all over again that, say, “Rebel Rebel” and Low are separated by less than three years.
Yet in the overarching narrative of classic rock history, Scary Monsters might be beloved, it might be that last great album, but it’s not often mentioned as breathlessly as his theoretically more definitive albums — the widely accepted classic rock masterpiece of Ziggy Stardust, the psych-tinged soul reinvention of Young Americans paired with the nocturnal coke spiral of Station To Station, and then of course the genre-imploding and otherworldly Low and Heroes.
On some level this makes sense: The synthesis and refinement of things is rarely going to loom as large as the first, mind-blowing leap into unforeseen horizons. Even if Low and Heroes are half full-fledged (if askew) pop songs and half ambient excursions, they helped birth whole new genres. Scary Monsters, in comparison, was the sound of an aging Bowie more or less engaging with the new sound of the time — quite effectively, but no longer years ahead of everyone else. Still, Scary Monsters deserves credit beyond what it’s given: This is the less-heralded classic of Bowie’s career, taking everything about him and recontextualizing it within a jagged robotic aesthetic, all of it sounding like it took place in a nightclub in some retro-futuristic cityscape.
The album opens with “It’s No Game (Part 1),” a track that could be a straightforward enough Bowie rock song, if not for the squelching-then-screeching Robert Fripp guitar work and Bowie’s force-screamed vocals. Much of the rest of the album follows suit, theoretically conventional songs like the title track and “Fashion” and “Up The Hill Backwards” lacerated by the digital corrosion that runs through Scary Monsters. Throughout, Bowie’s attention to detail and patience with the songwriting process paid massive dividends. Every song has hooks you can’t escape, and even the most gurgling and discomfiting passages — like much of “Scary Monsters” — culminate in some triumphant reprieve. Eventually, the whole album ends there, too, with the climactic stretch of the Tom Verlaine cover “Kingdom Come,” “Because You’re Young,” and the gentler “It’s No Game” sequel.
Scary Monsters also boasts just as many, if not more, classic Bowie songs than some of his more lionized albums. In addition to the aforementioned “Fashion,” there was of course “Ashes To Ashes.” The eerie space funk and return of Major Tom as a junkie made it the most explicit example of Bowie digging through and turning over his recent past on Scary Monsters. It’s also one of the haunting moments that remind you that Scary Monsters came out of years defined by drug abuse and a divorce; it’s the sound of someone reckoning with the years passing after having spent all his time up in the cosmos, looking down at everyone else. When there are songs as elegiac as “Ashes To Ashes,” maybe it makes sense that an album like Scary Monsters begins to register as some kind of final word.
But perhaps even more moving than “Ashes To Ashes” is the album’s towering centerpiece, “Teenage Wildlife.” The song’s panged guitar leads have garnered it comparisons to “Heroes,” as if in an album of knowing retreads this is the callback to what might be Bowie’s most iconic song. And, fair enough, this was Bowie going all-in on a certain kind of emotional catharsis, calibrating just about everything in “Teenage Wildlife” to trigger nostalgia and yearning: the aching guitar lines, one earworm vocal melody after another, the pulse and build and background vocals all pushing towards this giant, end-credits chorus. It’s often been perceived as Bowie reckoning with — or mocking — the new wave generation so clearly bearing his influence, but others have written about it as something broader, a midlife crisis of sorts when the world felt precarious. Again, it does give Scary Monsters a modicum of finality.
Of course, things were far from over. Three years later, Bowie returned with Let’s Dance. Whatever turn back towards commercialism that had occurred on Scary Monsters laid groundwork for a more complete embrace of the mainstream from Bowie, and vice versa. Let’s Dance featured two of Bowie’s most famous hits, “Modern Love” and the title track, two absolutely perfect ’80s pop songs. (The latter became his first American #1 hit since 1975’s “Fame.”) The album itself was patchier, and foreshadowed a messy, listless decade for Bowie. He finally achieved a level of stardom and widespread adulation he always deserved, but his creative impulses crash-landed in a series of albums where he seemed to lose track of himself. It’s another stereotype: A boomer artist with a ’60s or ’70s breakthrough struggling to maintain their footing in the ’80s, and a “last great album” they snuck in right before the dawn of that uneven decade for aging classic rockers.
From there, the story was always that Bowie was regaining something. He made albums people called artistically vital again, he made albums where he rocked again, he made albums where he ventured into the new genres of the time. The early ’90s through the early ’00s was an era littered with that same kind of cyclical criticism surrounding an icon past their prime — every album the best since Scary Monsters. That is, until Bowie more or less disappeared for 10 years, then suddenly came back with The Next Day in 2013 despite rumors of his failing health flitting around for years.
This kicked off an abrupt and too-short coda in Bowie’s career, a new career summary and recollection in The Next Day providing an elegy beyond even that of “Ashes To Ashes” and “Teenage Wildlife,” but also clearing the deck for Blackstar. There, Bowie really did reclaim the restless adventurousness that he once wielded so adeptly, and one more time he took off into the stratosphere to find a sound nobody else could harness. Maybe if he hadn’t tragically died just days after its release, there would’ve been a whole other peak, allowing Bowie to have one of those strange and unpredictable elder resurgences. Even without that, Blackstar could at least undo part of Scary Monsters’ shadow, allowing Bowie to go out on a note that was as beautiful and weird as ever.
So what does that make Scary Monsters now? Given how such things get codified, perhaps it will always be the Last Great Album for Bowie in the sense that it closed that first era, that it collected and said goodbye to so much at once. From here it wasn’t Ziggy or the Thin White Duke or the weirdo seeker hidden away in Berlin. It was David Bowie, the rockstar you knew, even when he was trying his hand at drum and bass. At the same time, while he may have lost the plot on occasion, Bowie also always had a way of writing his own story.
So, Scary Monsters was one ending. It took Bowie back down to Earth, even though he still sounded like nobody else; it was lurid and vibrant and emotional all at once; it filtered his past through a new present and crafted a wholly contemporary sound. Maybe it’s too contrarian to argue for it as the best Bowie album, even with its feel of an imagined greatest hits collection. But Scary Monsters is where everything coexisted and still mutated further. It was the album that best captured everything Bowie was about — and it will always be the conduit through which everything traveled, all of his old selves folded in and carried forward through the rest of his life.