Some people think David Bowie was the Madonna of the '70s, but the comparison only reveals the limitations of both artists. Madonna, of course, could never hope to approach the dizzying musical and thematic changes Bowie has made effortlessly over the years, from androgynous glam sensation (Ziggy Stardust) to green-and-blue-eyed Philly Soul man (Young Americans) to chart-topping pop beast for the '80s (Let's Dance). And Bowie, no piker when it comes to manipulating his image for commercial benefit, nonetheless lacks Madonna's epic abilities in these areas, and perhaps as a result has never made his mark on the zeitgeist to the extent she has.
His latest incarnation is in a sense his most outlandish. In a vain attempt to nullify his celebrity, he has collapsed himself into a rock & roll band, Tin Machine, disappearing into what's billed as a ''collaboration'' with three relative unknowns: the Sales brothers drummer Hunt and bassist Tony, sons of comedian Soupy and guitarmeister Reeves Gabrels. The band's 1989 self-titled first album went nowhere; now Tin Machine II at least comes a few shades closer to a true collaboration. Only one song is credited solely to Bowie; Gabrels, the very model of the modern rock sideman, shares writing credit on about half, and two songs are sung not by Bowie but by Hunt Sales. It's a genuine testament to Bowie's distinctiveness, however, that little of this matters. Everything on Tin Machine II from its enigmatic lyrics (''When the kiss of the comb/Tears my face from the bone'') to its blithely varied music (blues, art rock, hard rock, schmaltz) and tepid melodies (Bowie's songwriting muse has largely left him) sounds like typically mediocre late-period David Bowie.
One standout, even so, is ''Goodbye Mr. Ed,'' a breathtakingly produced tour de force undiminished by turgid lyrics. Another gem is ''You Belong in Rock N' Roll,'' a hugely sardonic blast at rock pretensions. Of Sales' two numbers, ''Stateside'' is a fairly uninteresting blues, but ''Sorry,'' which has lyrics as callow as the title suggests, is nonetheless well dressed with Sales' high, crying tenor and some ethereal production touches. But there isn't much else: Anonymous, grinding rockers (''One Shot''). Songs with passable chorus hooks (''You Can't Talk'') and nothing in the verses to support them. Meaningless lyric (''Beauty shrieks 'Beast in booties'/Comin' home so lay the table'') after meaningless lyric (''I'm hurting so bad/And here come the Indians ooo''). There's nothing wrong with David Bowie fronting a rock band, but neither he nor his bandmates rise to the occasion. He would have to be more of an alchemist than he's ever been to turn this Tin Machine into gold. C