In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the latest 2013 release.
The Buddha of Suburbia signaled a return to form for David Bowie’s music. Aside from including more earnest rock-oriented material, it harkened back to the music released in his so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of albums co-written with Brian Eno. It may not be entirely surprising then to find Eno as a collaborator on Bowie’s following album, Outside.
1995’s Outside was introduced as another entry in Bowie’s collection of concept albums. This disc follows Bowie’s character of Nathan Adler, a sort of detective who investigates a new phenomenon known as Art Crime, which deems mutilation and murder legal if it is termed “artistic.” Adler investigates each of these cases and determines if they should be considered works of art or criminal depravity.
Surely this is an interesting concept and one with a number of possibilities. It must be said, however, that this story is conveyed in a very nonlinear fashion, and it’s nearly impossible to determine what is actually taking place even with the help of the album’s linear notes and the spoken word pieces between some of the songs.
But leaving the underlying story aside, the true test of any album is how well the songs work, and by that measure, much of Outside works rather well. Much more so than on the previous album, these songs are very much grounded in heavy rock music, sometimes exuding an industrial rock sort of feel, thanks largely to the guitar work of Reeves Gabrels.
The record’s title track kicks off the record with an ominous introduction and is followed with the heavy, almost-scary sounding “Heart’s Filthy Lesson.” This is a tone carried on through another one of Outside’s singles “Hallo Spaceboy” and juxtaposed with the somber brooding of “The Motel,” and a re-record of Buddha’s “Strangers When We Meet” that works even better than it did in its original form.
An interesting aspect about the majority of these songs is that Bowie didn’t go into the studio with any prepared ideas, and much of this material was composed through musical improvisation, and it sounds like it. This could be considered both an asset and a hindrance in this context. Of course, it’s quite impressive and admirable that Bowie and his band made this material through that process, and it undeniably gives the record a distinctive feel, almost like a collision of rock and free jazz.
On the other hand though, some of the tracks, though interesting, aren’t as immediately accessible. And this is something that is evident for most of Outside: It is quite a remarkable collection of work, but you may have to listen to it through a few times to really appreciate what it has to offer.
Outside isn’t perfect. It may be a bit too long with the profound impact of some songs being lessened by the unnecessary inclusion of others, and the overall concept of the album may have been crushed beneath its own ambition. But with that being said, it still has some remarkable moments of brilliance, and with a few listens, it’s easy to appreciate the album as a whole cohesive unit, even though you may never understand the story.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Outside,” “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” “The Motel,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” Strangers When we Meet”
A Very Bowie Moment: “If there was only something between us, Other than our clothes” – “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”
Best Edition: If you can get your hands on the 2004 2-disc edition, there are a number of non-album cuts and remixes to be appreciated there.
Though Outside was meant to be part one in a series of three intertwined albums, Bowie instead decided to record his next record quickly, candidly, and not with the same grand ambition as his last.
From this choice emerged Earthling, an in-your-face, aggressive venture into the synthesized drum-and-bass mentality of jungle and industrial rock that was touched upon in Outside but brought to its apex here.
Though the material on Earthling is not conceptually-conceived like its predecessor, and it certainly veers much closer to the hard edge of industrial rock, it does still feel uncannily as if it’s a more succinct supplement to the Outside album.
Among squealing guitars sounding like the screech of brakes on a car, Bowie’s vocal comes in on “Little Wonder” with almost-ironic poppy-ness, setting the tone for the remaining eight songs on the tracklist.
Conversely, “Looking for Satellites” is perhaps not quite as effective as it feels like the nonsensical lyrics were simply tacked on as an afterthought to the backing track. Moreover, the tone of this song seems arguably out of place with among the rest of these songs. Yet Earthling carries on with a slew of strong cuts such as “Battle for Britain,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” and “I’m Afraid of Americans.”
Earthling was mostly received well by critics and garnered even more sales than Outside upon its release, but it seems to be an album that is, overall, polarizing among fans of Bowie’s work, and it’s easy to see why. Even though the previous record flirted with such sonic ideas beforehand, this piece of work went full-throttle with its leanings toward the influence of bands like Nine Inch Nails, and perhaps this wasn’t a musical direction that people would have expected a 50-year-old rock icon to take on.
With that being said however, there is a lot to appreciate here on this album. Perhaps the lyrics aren’t as subtle or poetically-written as on some of the singer’s past efforts, but one might venture to guess that Bowie didn’t intend them to be. Earthling is full of intriguing experimentation in sampling and digital-musicianship, and, more often than not, these experiments pay off quite well.
Aside from that, there are some simply striking performances in these songs. Consider the subdued vocal performance in “Dead Man Walking” and the abrasiveness of “Seven Years in Tibet” and “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Not only are these considerable effective, but it’s difficult to imagine these moments of genius occurring if Bowie had not taken the risk to try his hand at what might have been considered a young man’s game.
And that’s what Earthling should be remembered as: A risky move. Maybe you don’t feel it worked; maybe you love the results. Whatever your stance may be, it’s hard to deny that it was a bold move, and one that few artists other than Bowie could do with such grace.
If you haven’t listened to this record in a while, give it another spin.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Little Wonder,” “Battle for Britain (The Letter),” Seven Years in Tibet,” “Dead Man Walking,” “I’m Afraid of Americans”
A Very Bowie Moment: “My, my the time do fly, when it’s in another pair of pants” – “Battle for Britain (The Letter)”
Best Edition: Same deal as Outside, only with the 2005 expanded edition.