Bowie wasn’t merely mucking about with Labyrinth; he was finding his way even if the steps were sometimes tentative and less certain than his previous work.
It seemed as though there were no fewer than two David Bowies roaming the Earth in the early 1980s. He’d entered the new decade with the spectacular Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), a record that would come to be viewed as one of his best, and he followed that three years later with the hit-ladenLet’s Dance. As good as the titular track and “Modern Love” were, though, “China Girl” found the shape-shifting singer looking backward (he’d co-written the tune with Iggy Pop for the singer’s 1977 effort The Idiot). The following year’s listless Tonight once more leaned on older tracks and/or covers heavily enough that some wondered if Bowie had transformed from leader to follower.
He wasn’t rudderless, but his direction was hard to peg. When the opportunity presented itself for him to participate in a new film and offer five new songs, it seemed like a new door opened. He’d done films before, with some varying success. His appearance in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth was to have spawned new music but various complications prevented that.
This new film, Labyrinth, seemed like it could be both tailor-made for him and a long shot. Directed by Jim Henson and keeping with the shadowy elements of his previous picture, The Dark Crystal, it would find Bowie surrounded by muppets and donning a costume that many women of a certain age claim ushered in their first sexual awakening. The film wasn’t a smash success: Bowie’s performance was equidistant from spooky and charming while his songs were perfect for the context of the film but weren’t going to become smash singles on their own. If the intention was to give the singer’s career a new boost, it was a failure—at least at first glance.
Labyrinth would enjoy a much longer life when it hit video stores, becoming a rite of passage for youngsters and a highly quotable picture. Two of those new songs would also bore their way into the psyche of viewers. “Underground,” a up-to-date rocker featuring Albert Collins on guitar, was strong enough to become a stand-alone single and fair-sized hit in the UK. It’s not Bowie’s best track of the era (“Absolute Beginners,” culled from the 1986 picture of the same name holds that distinction) but for the nearly six minutes that you spend listening to it, there may as well be no other song in the world.
The ballad “As the World Falls Down” works well enough in the context of the film but doesn’t have the same vitality when extracted from the soundtrack. Neither does “Chilly Down” or the actor/singer’s most memorable composition from the picture, “Magic Dance.” Yes, it’s fun and silly and highly quotable, but if we’re using it as a measure of Bowie’s musical health at the time, one might have recommended he re-examine his plan. That takes nothing away from the film’s status or the joy one feels when listening to the soundtrack. In that regard, Bowie may never have been sweeter or more relatable. Those, however, weren’t really his best traits.
Trevor Jones’ score, which occupies the rest of the record, is a serviceable batch of music, though separated from its corresponding images, it doesn’t quite have the same emotional/artistic impact. There are moments of inspired composition, but so much of it just drifts along without notice.
As for Bowie himself: He’d continue to evolve and struggle with his place in the musical landscape of the 1980s beyond this moment. His hard-edged Never Let Me Down (1987) would be met with a heavy dose of critical scorn while his fan base yearned for a man more focused on what they wanted from him rather than what he wanted for himself. By the decade’s close, he’d form Tin Machine, upsetting certain critics and leaving some fringe listeners in the dust.
That restlessness, difficult for many to take at the time, would become a key element of the eulogies that flooded in following the singer’s death in 2016. Bowie wasn’t merely mucking about with Labyrinth; he was finding his way even if the steps were sometimes tentative and less certain than his previous work.