Friday, 22 May 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 7

Outside (1995)

His artistic muse now returned, Bowie teamed up with Brian Eno for the first time in a decade and a half, both keen to rekindle the magic they conjured up in the late 70s. What resulted was undoubtedly the most ambitious and audacious album of his entire career. 'Outside' was a concept album set in a dystopian near-future, its protagonist Nathan Adler investigating the murder of Baby Grace, a 14-year-old girl. The story of 'Outside' is rather involved - you'd be better off reading about that on Wiki. But in a nutshell, it was intended as being the first in a series of albums, using some of the ideas and material Bowie and Eno came up with during jams before recording the album.

It turned out there would be no follow-ups in the series. Unsurprisingly Bowie had moved on artistically and conceptually by the time the next instalment was due. As it is, 'Outside' is the longest album he ever released, something he was more than aware of at the time. For this reason, 'Outside' suffers a little from its protracted nature. Thing is though, it's got some incredible stuff on it.

Hearts Filthy Lesson was the oddest choice for a lead single, being by far the least commercial single he had ever released. It did, however, set the tone; 'Outside' is dark, both in its subject matter and its music. The song bamboozled many when first released, but critics warmed to it once contextualised on the album. And that's really the main thing to think about when listening to 'Outside' for the first time; it's not an album of songs, it's a complete work. To listen to any part of it without the rest is to remove the whole context of it. Hallo Spaceman is another example. The single is just fabulous in its remixed form featuring the Pet Shop Boys, but the much more industrial feel of the album version fits wonderfully within the story of 'Outside'. On its own, it wouldn't have made as much sense.

Some tracks do work quite well singularly though. I Have Not Been To Oxford Town has that odd-yet-accessible crossover quality that Bowie perfected on 'Scary Monsters', while album closer Strangers When We Meet is a reworking of the track that appeared on Bowie's previous record 'The Buddha Of Suburbia'. Although some elements of 'Outside' are rather baffling - you could argue about the validity of some of the segues featuring 'Outside''s characters - on the whole it is something of a success. It was good to hear Bowie in exploratory mode again, and clearly enjoying making interesting music once more. 'Outside' divides critics, but I'm more than happy to give it a thumbs up, even if it can be quite difficult to get through.

7.5 / 10


Earthling (1997)

I've often seen 'Earthling' derided by so-called critics. I don't get it. I can only assume they never bothered to listen to it before commenting. It's possibly my favourite post-'Scary Monsters' Bowie album. Sure, it sounds very different to much of his previous works, but isn't that what we expect of the man? 'Earthling' is rife with electronic rhythms and production techniques, mixed in with some of the dark and gritty industrial noises he used on 'Outside'. There's also some great tunes.

Little Wonder and Dead Man Walking are superb tracks, the latter especially with its powerful driving rhythms and heavy distorted guitars. I'm Afraid Of Americans remains a highlight of his entire catalogue, while The Last Thing You Should Do and Law (Earthlings On Fire) are delightfully intriguing, if a little ominous in their delivery.

I suspect the thought that Bowie might be making 'dance music' may well have put fear into the hearts of long-term fans and driven the negative feelings many had. They were wrong though. Bowie hadn't 'gone dance', but he definitely was influenced by the music and sound. He just took the good bits and blended it with lots of other things to produce something original and interesting. Little Wonder does sound rather Prodigy-like, but it's also clear he was very strongly influenced by Nine Inch Nails who toured with him in the States the previous year.

'Earthling' is an aggressive-sounding record, though not a necessarily angry one. In fact, work started on it within a week of the 'Outside' tour ending which might explain its high-octane levels and energy. It doesn't let up; even the album's slow-burner Seven Years In Tibet has a real edge about it that keeps the pulse racing.

This is Bowie's best 90s record by far. It's not a drum & bass record, but it does have some drum & bass in it. It's not an industrial record, though there are bits that sound like NIN, Ministry, KMFDM etc. It is, however, a David Bowie record, and one of his best.

8.4 / 10


'hours...' (1999)

Following the wild experimentation and loud industrial sounds of Bowie's previous couple of albums, 'hours...' came as something of light relief. It was his most straight-forward sounding song-based record since the 80s. It was also his mellowest. But it would have been unlike Bowie not to have tried something new, it's just that this time it came through in different ways.

Much of the music on 'hours...' started life as part of the video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul which actually featured characters based on Bowie and his band members. He also ran a competition on the Internet to write lyrics for an instrumental piece which became What's Really Happening, perhaps one of the very earliest examples of an artist engaging with fans through this then-fledgling medium. The winner's lyrics were recorded and released on the album and it proves to be one of the highlights. The finished album was also released entirely online for its first two weeks - unheard of for a major artist, and something the industry failed to latch onto for more than a decade hence.

And what of the music itself? Well it was certainly a little easier to engage with immediately than its forerunners. Thursday's Child is a ballad, and therefore a rather unusual choice for an opening track. Something In The Air and If I'm Dreaming My Life are a little darker and slightly offbeat in places, but a far cry from anything on 'Outside'. Seven is, for me, one of Bowie's most exceptional songs of his latter day period (although I confess to liking the remixed single version a tad more than the album version).

There are several nods to his past, most strikingly on The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell which revisits his glam days and sets them in the industrial menace of his recent offerings. In fact, 'hours...' does appear to have a rather introspective theme to it. Its artwork suggests a period of self-examination had taken place, the old, the recent and the future all being considered and scrutinised. Indeed, another skin was being shed here and the full rebirth would be revealed on his next record.

There is a weak spot though. Brilliant Adventure is puzzling. It's a short instrumental reminiscent of the Berlin period, but it sticks out like a sore thumb here. Pretty pointless in fact. Aside from that, 'hours...' is a good album, even if it doesn't have as much in the way of talking points as 'Outside' or 'Earthling'. It is consistent and focussed; its material strong and interesting. Bowie has always done songs well, and while he would continue to experiment and innovate, 'hours...' suggested it was being toned down a little and a more traditional approach was being considered.

7.8 / 10


1 comment:

  1. Hmmm, the three albums that can cause the most heated discussions among the Bowie fans I know. By the 90's all the noise about how Young Americans was a low point and the Berlin Trilogy was overrated seemed to have wained. But the 80's disasters were still part of the consciousness of his fans. This certainly made it hard for Bowie to succeed in a new decade, but with Outside, he finally created music that caused a stir and extreme reactions.
    I think Outside has benefited from the sands of time. There's a very definite jazz feel to much of the album - at least to these ears. It's a genre that has actually become a very good friend to Bowies creative process for the past 20 yrs now. I waffle between the title track and Lodger-esque beauty of I Have Not Been To Oxford Town as my favorites.
    My biggest complaint about Earthling is it always has sounded like Bowie doing other peoples sound and NOT putting enough of his imprint on it. It smacks of Massive Attack, Drum & Bass - Battle For Britain is downright embarrassing, electronic dance...At least I'm Afraid Of Americans sounds like NIN because NIN were involved. But honestly, Bowie head banging, even darkly or with a sense of wit isn't really necessary. The two songs that save the proceedings for me are Seven Years In Tibet and Law (Earthlings On Fire). There is again a relationship between these two songs and Lodger and Scary Monsters to these ears.
    Hours is a masterful work. It's part song cycle, part modern jazz, part mature songwriter master turn. The reflectiveness of much of the album can draw you in. It's quite addictive for me. Seven is a classic Bowie track. Thursday Child is a valid attempt to wipe away, musically, all the overblown sound of Bowie in the 80's. When I first heard it I immediately thought, 'yes he's had this up his sleeve for a while, just waiting for the right time.' I have to agree with you on Brilliant Adventure. It so very much sounds like it belongs on side 2 of Low. It's very filmic and beautiful but totally from left field.
    Can't wait to hear your impressions of the next two albums...