Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

David Bowie - Earthling

David Bowie

Released 1997 on BMG
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 26/04/2007ce

1. Little Wonder (6:02)
2. Looking for Satellites (5:21)
3. Battle for Britain (The Letter) (4:48)
4. Seven Years in Tibet (6:22)
5. Dead Man Walking (6:50)
6. Telling Lies (4:49)
7. The Last Thing You Should Do (4:57)
8. I'm Afraid of Americans (5:00)
9. Law (Earthlings on Fire) (4:48)

Stuttering be-beats... frak-TURED vo-KALS; add to this some vague and bewildering concept about extra-terrestrialism (which could be seen as a repeat of the territory suggested by The Man Who Fell to Earth; only distorted by the multi-cultural, multi-media kaleidoscope of pre-millennium tension) and you have Earthling; David Bowie's nineteenth album as a solo superstar and his second of an informal trilogy of works that would also include the NIN-aping concept album 1. Outside (1995) and the decidedly more laid back and middle-aged approach of the subsequent hours... (1999). Like those albums, Earthling (1997) was dismissed at the time of its initial release as being yet another hollow attempt by his Thin White Dukeness to latch onto whatever musical fad was big at the time in order to endear himself to the "yoof" market. The subsequent supporting tour of this album would see Bowie performing alongside the aforementioned Nine Inch Nails in a way that would allow for both sets to merge seamlessly, with Bowie and Reznor briefly performing on stage simultaneously (an idea that Bowie originally attempted when Morrissey opened for him in the early 90's... much to Morrissey's lasting disdain). There are even nods to the ultra-trendy and seriously warped musical landscapes of acts like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, with Bowie taking elements of their sound and applying it alongside further hints of acid house, dance, dub, jungle, funk, ambient and jazz; and merging them all together into a thick cloggy soup of industrial, alternative rock.

With these influences in check, one of the major criticisms of the album at the time was that Bowie had ceased to be exciting and was now simply following the pack (or worse, looking for younger and more exciting musicians to piggy-back off of). The most staunched critics of the album also cited the supposed laziness of Bowie's work during this era, in particular, his fondness for numerous re-mixes, which were seen by many as a throwback to the acid-house movement of almost ten years earlier. I suppose, looking back at it, the critics did have a point, and there is a certain hint of desperation and self-conscious pretension in much of Bowie post-1980's work; a confused and often confusing time in which Bowie seemed almost determined to prove to people that he could still be relevant, exciting and cutting edge, and was no longer posturing towards the sharp suit and ultra-chic veneer of his often soulless 80's pop phase.

Still, it's amazing how time manages to stagger our opinion of things. Digging this album out recently I was shocked and surprised at not only how enjoyable and well produced the album is, but also how relevant it sounds when listened to within the context of the current wave of bands that are trying to fuse elements of dance music and the rave scene with the more recognisable characteristics of rock. It's all there; just take a listen to the recent debut album by the much-hyped London-based band Klaxons, or related work by Shitdisco, Datarock, New Young Pony Club, CSS, Enter Shikari and Simian Mobile Disco (not to mention the über-successful dance rock name-dropping of LCD Soundsystem, Dan Le Sac and Calvin Harris) and you can begin to hear how relevant and exciting the music of Earthling really is (perhaps showing the short-sighted critics of 1997 that Bowie was indeed ahead of the game by a FULL NINE YEARS!!).

So, as with many of the acts frequently associated with this current indie-rock nu-wave, the overall sound of Earthling is defined by frantic drum rhythms, grinding and distorted guitars, plenty of bass, and Bowie's nervous vocals. It establishes this mood right from the start, with lead single Little Wonder throwing us headlong into a sound that has wall to wall percussion washing over us; giving us the impression of being inside a huge metal drum that is kicked down the stairs, as heavy drum & bass inflections reverberate from speaker to speaker amidst a series of alien-like guitar drones and a spasmodic piano riff. Unlike 1. Outside, which mixed grinding jungle and industrial rock influences alongside ambient sketches and a couple of almost ballad-like compositions, the frantic head-rush of the sound found here is unrelenting; particularly on the track in question, which has numerous odd time changes and Bowie's lo-fi guide vocal being used instead of a more clean and clear take. With this track, and later efforts like Battle for Britain, Dead Man Walking and The Last Thing You Should Do, it's easy to imagine Bowie being on a musical diet consisting solely of the Richard D. James album, Feed Me Weird Things, Tri Repetae, Bitches Brew, Psalm 69 and The Downward Spiral. Added to these tracks, we also have the most well-known song from the album, I'm Afraid of Americans, which first appeared in an embryonic state on the soundtrack to Paul Verhoeven's trash n' gash melodrama Showgirls before eventually becoming a huge hit for this album when remixed by the (once again) aforementioned Trent Reznor (he's all over this review like a rash!).

So we have a collection of nine great songs showing Bowie and his musical collaborators (here including Mark Plati, Reeves Gabrels, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mike Garson, Zachary Alford and Brian Eno) firing all cylinders; fusing drum loops and samples alongside atonal piano solos, shrieking vocals and complex guitar distortions. It hangs together much more comfortably than 1. Outside, which was bloated by too much concept and not enough tunes, with the album, when really broken down, probably featuring an EP's worth of tracks along with a host of indulgent experimentation and narrative nonsense. Earthling, along with hours... seems a lot more song based, with the experimentation and the use of longer songs with various time signatures and key-changes feeling a lot more organic and true to the spirit of the album.

Is there a concept to be gleamed from all of this? Probably... Bowie obviously has a thing for concept records, as he's experimented with them a number times in the past; from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, to Diamond Dogs, Lodger, Aladdin Sane and 1. Outside (the first in what was supposed to be a five-part song cycle dealing with murder, art-crime and the run up to the new millennium). Presumably, many of the songs intended for the subsequent Outside albums are featured here, which probably explains the brief appearance of Outside collaborator Eno and the use of many of the same musicians, but there's no mention of private investigators or murdered children. However, the millennium does play a part, and, as I suggested earlier, much of the album seems to be an observation on the state of the world in the closing moments of the twentieth century from the perspective of an alien. The cover art is also quite fascinating, and shows as an androgynous, extraterrestrial looking Bowie decked out in bomber boots and a PVC overcoat (designed like the Union Jack), staring out the projected backdrop of a beautiful green landscape. It's in stark contrast with the dark and industrial-influenced music that lurks within, and hold several signifiers to the numerous references to Britain, and indeed, post-war British culture, littered throughout the album.

Now, certainly Bowie's not what you'd call an "unsung artist", and his inclusion here is most probably debatable, but I genuinely think despite the decades of super-stardom and millions in the bank, he still has a fair few good albums that fell through the cracks and were somehow overlooked. In dealing with Bowie, critics are always keen to name-check Ziggy Stardust or to reel off the cultural and historical significance of the so-called "Berlin Trilogy", but for all the attention garnered towards his post-Scary Monsters career, he might as well have taken a bullet alongside Lennon. True, much of his work has been patchy (Diamond Dogs, Black Tie White Noise, 1. Outside, that long forgotten first album), but a lot of it comes down to critics glamorising youth and deciding that an artist must produce their best work in the early-stages of their career (which naturally leads to the musical climate we have now, in which all bands are hyped up as the greatest band of all time off the back of a single LP, or indeed, a single song -- if were thinking of people like Kate Nash, Dan le Sac, Calvin Harris, etc, etc -- before getting the critical cold-shoulder once we get around to album number two).

At any rate, we have an album that still seems to divide opinion, with a recent Amazon review calling this "the worst Bowie album, EVER", despite the fact that it's clearly better than David Bowie (1967), Pin Ups (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), The Young Americans (1975), Scary Monsters (1980), Lets Dance (1983), Tonight (1984), Never Let Me Down (1987), Black Tie White Noise (1992) and 1. Outside (1995). After this, Bowie would make another drastic U-turn with the album hours..., a quiet and contemplative album, notable for it's cover design featuring a long-haired and mature Bowie cradling the exhausted body of his spiky-haired persona from Outside and here. Regardless of the negative criticisms of the time, Earthling has proven to be a lasting and relevant piece of work; one that is exciting and interesting in a musical sense, and one that seems to work in relation to the current vogue of alternative indie bands playing around with samples and beats.

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