Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
In the second half of the previous millennium’s final decade, David Bowie released three studio albums that couldn’t have been more different from one another. One was a dark concept album, one embraced jungle and drum-and-bass, and one was a more subdued, almost adult-contemporary album. The first two were not really up my musical alley, so to speak, upon their initial release, so it’s a good thing that I’m revisiting them now with a much more open mind. I was surprised to find my opinion changing on all three albums with each successive listen, depending on the time of day or whether I was focusing on the music, lyrics or backstory of each.
At 75 minutes and 19 tracks, Outside (1995) is one of Bowie’s least commercial offerings. As a fan of progressive rock and concept albums, however, I was immediately blown away and quickly fell in love with it. The music & lyrics are dark, and my first thought was: it’s the musical equivalent of the movie Se7en (starring Brad Pitt & Morgan Freeman). When I started looking into more details on the album, I discovered that one of the songs (“The Hearts Filthy Lesson”) was actually played during the end credits of that movie, so my initial assessment was right on the money. The lyrical concept of the album takes place in a dystopian society in the not-too-distant future. A cyber detective named Nathan Adler investigates “Art Crime,” where murders are turned into works of art, and the CD packaging features various entries from Nathan Adler’s journal. I’m sure a lot of fans were turned off by this narrative, as well as the short “link” tracks that are called “Segues,” but for the right listener this is one of his most rewarding albums. It’s less a collection of individual songs than a song-cycle, and should be appreciated that way. It also marked the return of Brian Eno as co-producer and musical co-conspirator.
Even though there are distinct individual songs here, it works best when listened to from beginning to end. Unlike some of the best concept albums (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Who’s Tommy & Quadrophenia, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway), there aren’t many radio-friendly tracks or songs that can easily be lifted as singles, which probably made this a harder album to embrace for many fans. There are some excellent songs that are worth highlighting, though. “Outside” is a straight-ahead 4/4 midtempo track with great sound effects and big booming drums. The basic idea is that “the music is outside, it’s happening outside.” That sets the stage for the aforementioned “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” which has modern production flourishes and a wonderful little guitar pattern. There’s also a great slow, galloping groove and some awesome piano runs from Mike Garson. The themes are dark and distant (“If there was only something between us other than our clothes”; the heart’s filthy lesson “falls on deaf ears”), but the music is powerful. “A Small Plot Of Land” is as far from commercial pop music as Bowie gets, veering from a wild jazz rhythm to a steady beat and atmospheric production with swirling sounds and chanted vocals buried in the mix.
The guitar pattern in “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” gives the song a funky feel reminiscent of his Let’s Dance era. It’s a very cool song with memorable verses and choruses (“Toll the bell, pay the private eye, all’s well, 20th century dies”). “No Control” has a steady midtempo, programmed rhythm track with a strong vocal melody in the verses and a hook at the end of each chorus (“It’s all deranged, no control”). Reeves Gabrels does his best Adrian Belew impression in the repetitive guitar pattern of “The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty),” which recalls early-‘80s King Crimson. It’s got a couple of repeated vocal hooks: “Turn and turn again” and his yelped “I shake!” Another song whose creepy vibe would’ve fit in the movie Se7en is “Wishful Beginnings.” Not sure if those are processed vocals or a synth sound, but the repeated motif throughout the song scares me (in a good way) every time. “We Prick You” has a fast-paced techno groove, two great vocal hooks (“we wish you well” in the verses and “tell the truth” in the choruses), and would probably work as a stand-alone track. The last song, “Strangers When We Meet,” appeared on his previous album, but I like this version better. It reminded me of early-‘80s Roxy Music, and was an excellent choice for a single, even though I don’t think it was a hit. The final time I listened to this album, when I was taking notes, reading the lyrics and diary entries, and finding out more about the music, I didn’t enjoy it as much, which confirms my belief that this is a record that should be listened to without interruption. It’s quickly climbed high on the list of my favorite Bowie albums.
For his next album, Earthling (1997), he fully embraced club music, specifically the “jungle” and “drum-and-bass” genres. These involve synthetic sounding pre-programmed rhythms, and the overall production sound is not something I usually respond to. In fact, when I first bought this album in 1997 I disliked it so much that I gave away my copy, and it was only a few years ago that I got a digital copy from a friend of mine, since I wanted to give it another chance. I didn’t hate it anymore, but it took until this week, when I played it more than ever, that I finally uncovered some excellent songs beneath all of that studio trickery. I like his vocal delivery on album opener “Little Wonder,” as well as the catchy chorus (“sending me so far away…”) that’s more straightforward guitar rock. It goes on a little too long, and at 6 minutes it sounds more like a dance remix of a shorter song. “Looking For Satellites” has a hypnotic a capella intro (“Nowhere, Shampoo, TV, Come Back”) which gives way to a loping rhythm track. It’s a cool song, but could also use some editing. “Battle For Britain (The Letter)” has an impressive groove, and Bowie’s vocals (especially his harmonies with his own voice) sound like his early-‘70s voice, but other than Mike Garson’s typically excellent off-kilter piano solo, the melody never drew me in. A song that really grew on me is “Seven Years In Tibet.” It’s less club-oriented and more modern rock, but it does have a steady, robotic beat. It’s got an excellent vocal hook with “I praise to you, nothing ever goes away.”
Another song that would work better in a shorter version is “Dead Man Walking.” It has a great vocal melody and cool guitar (or synth?) sound effects. I would probably love this song with different production, but I still came to like it as is. Garson provides more outstanding piano in the last 30 seconds. “Telling Lies” isn’t a great song, but I do enjoy the backing vocals in the chorus (“Ooh, ah, visionary. Ooh, ah, missionary. Feels like something’s gonna happen this year”). Without the modern beats this would’ve fit on Never Let Me Down. “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” the most well-known tune from this album, would only work with this sonic arrangement. I can’t imagine it being effective in another setting, as the anger and disillusionment in the lyrics is brought to life by the electronics. The album ends on a relatively weak note with “Law (Earthlings On Fire),” although I like the recurring melody which reminds me of Pink Floyd’s “Empty Spaces” (from The Wall). Otherwise, the groove is monotonous, but I guess the “With the sound…of the ground” section is pretty catchy. Overall, I still don’t rate this album very highly, yet I came around to a lot of the music, and would love to hear some of these songs with more organic instrumentation. I’ve been told that many live recordings from this era are better than the album versions, so I might seek those out in the future.
The last album he released in the 20th century, Hours… (1999), is a mellower affair than anything he had recorded in quite a while. At times I thought I was listening to a Sting album (that’s more of an observation than a criticism, although some fans might take offense). I was surprised to see that it was co-produced with Reeves Gabrels, who is usually known for his wild guitar antics, but his playing here is much more subdued and the album benefits from that. On album opener “Thursday’s Child,” I can’t tell if he’s mourning the past or celebrating it and looking forward (“throw me tomorrow, seeing my past to let it go”). There’s a nice slowly climbing melody in the verses and soothing female voices in the choruses. A shorter version might have had more impact, but there are some lovely lyrics (“Nothing prepared me for your smile, lighting the darkness of my soul, innocence in your arms”) that make this a keeper. “Survive” begins with acoustic guitar, then goes into a slow programmed groove and builds even more in the (tasteful) guitar solo. Sounds like he’s looking back at a lost love (“You’re the greatest mistake I never made”). There’s a hint of a country beat on “If I’m Dreaming My Life” that briefly gives way to a more rockin’ 4/4 feel before settling into a drowsy arrangement. It would’ve been much more effective if it was a little peppier. Tin Machine would’ve done wonders with this tune.
One of the best songs on the album is “Seven,” which has the feel of his Hunky Dory period. It’s a pretty melancholy tune with ultimately uplifting lyrics about his life coming to an end (“Seven days to live my life or seven ways to die”). It also features some nice George Harrison-esque slide guitar. There’s not a lot to “What’s Really Happening,” a simple rocker with mildly psychedelic guitar and a bouncy bass line. The lyrics were written by Alex Grant, an online contest winner who wrote them for an existing instrumental track. I like the line “Hearts become outdated clocks, ticking in your mind.” Bowie revisits characters from Hunky Dory’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” for “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell,” a crunchy rocker with a keyboard sound that recalls The Cars. It’s an excellent song with a rockin’ Mick Ronson-esque guitar solo, and some biting lyrics (“I found you out before you grow old…they wore it out but they wore it well”). “New Angels Of Promise” reminded me of The Berlin Trilogy, especially his yelping voice, the various vocal sounds, and the verses that include the line, “Take us to the edge of time…” This is followed by a short instrumental, “Brilliant Adventure,” which has an Asian feel that’s not far off from Heroes’ “Moss Garden.” It’s airy and quite moody. This is an album that I was probably more impressed with when I didn’t know his catalog that well. Now it sounds like a very good record with some memorable melodies and sharp lyrics, but I feel like I’ve heard it all before. It’s enjoyable but hardly essential.
I’m very close to the finish line now, as Bowie has only released two more studio albums so far. I’ll be revisiting them, as well as a 3-CD collection of his radio sessions for the BBC and a more recent concert recording, throughout the next week, and I’ll wrap up my appraisal of his catalog once I’ve given them sufficient listening time. As always, thanks for joining me on this journey through an incredible collection of music. I continue to have a blast sharing my discoveries with you.