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David Bowie - Earthling (1997)
Producer: David Bowie, Mark Plati, Reeves Gabrels
Looking for Satellites
Battle for Britain (The Letter)
Seven Years in Tibet
Dead Man Walking
The Last Thing You Should Do
I'm Afraid of Americans
Law (Earthlings on Fire)
Released in 1997, Earthling is the twentieth studio album by David Bowie (I'm not counting his The Buddha of Suburbia Soundtrack). The origins of Earthling can be traced back to his previous 'industrial' studio album, Outside. Now, as hit and miss as Outside was, it certainly had style, and a number of the tracks had that old Bowie magic coursing through their veins. It seemed, to me at least, that he was finally reconnecting with his muse (he seemingly lost it immediately after recording his 1983 album Let's Dance).
However, after being subjected to a listen of Earthling, I conclude that by no stretch of the imagination is it safe to start listening to David Bowie again. His immediate post Let's Dance material is often viewed as his nadir as both an artist and a musician, but I'm prepared to scrap that and nominate this pile of mess as his all-time low instead. Yes, Earthling is truly offensive. While I can take Bowie dabbling with industrial music and the odd hint of drum and bass, Earthling simply takes the whole process far too seriously and commits to an entire album of such disaster. All of a sudden you are brutally made aware that David Bowie is no longer cool but is fifty years old and has released a drum and bass album. Lord, help us all.
Of course, the fans will tell you that it's simply David Bowie being rock's most famous musical chameleon and changing his facets once more. But the fans are wrong. While over the duration of his career David Bowie has to be commended for changing his musical characteristics more than an OCD sufferer washes their hands, one simply cannot make excuses for Earthling's bitter case of artistic stagnation. I actually get angry while listening to Earthling, that's how bad it is, and I'm possibly the most serene man on the planet.
In the beginning, as David Bowie's nasally bellyaching collides with the machine gun drumming of dire opening song Little Wonder, it is little wonder that Earthling is as poor as it is. The song divides itself between repeating the ruinous elements of the aforementioned introduction and 'spicing' it up a little with overdubbed vocals (it's hard to tell but I think the section with the towering vocals is what I guess would normally constitute the chorus).
Battle for Britain features Bowie getting all nationalistic on us. When I look at the dismal LP sleeve for Earthling - which sees Bowie sporting what looks like a dodgy PVC Union Jack dress - it is this song which is called to mind. The song isn't entirely without merit, though. I think somewhere in there is a nice set of descending bass notes.
Dead Man Walking deserves a special mention because when I listen to it I don't wish I was deaf. The main rhythm is moderately good, while Bowie's vocal performance is positively elysian, "And I'm gone through the crack in the past... like a dead man walking!" Although, I feel that the sci-fi elements of the song are unwise (most notably the futuristic synths).
Telling Lies, one of the singles released from Earthling, isn't very good at all. I guess it just didn't want to break the running themes of mediocrity which the rest of the album has committed to. Multiple versions of Telling Lies were discharged via David Bowie's website prior to Earthling's release, making it the first ever downloadable single from a major, established musician. Even when Bowie isn't pushing things forward musically he's often trying something new to break the monotony of life.
Despite all of the hatred which I have garnered towards Earthling and the multitude of its unforgiveable sins, it isn't without one standout track. I'm Afraid of Americans rocks out, it really does. I put this down to a few factors, including 1) it doesn't feature any sort of drum and bass rhythm, instead opting for a far more 'standard' song structure, with easily identifiable verses and chorus and 2) Mr Brian Eno wrote the song alongside Bowie, who no doubt advised him to leave out the chugging back rhythms which plague the rest of the album.
The torture is brought to an end by a final attack on my sanity, namely Law (Earthlings on Fire). As Bowie tediously repeats the lyrics, "with the sound, with the sound, with the sound of the ground," you may wonder to yourself, 'what happened to the man who wrote "Heroes"?' Hell, I'd even take Loving the Alien at this point. Bring back mid 1980s Bowie and we'd all be better off.
I'm sure that while reading my scathing review you have caught on to my general views towards Earthling. Do not buy this album, do not listen to this album, do not even accept this album if it is offered to you for free. Earthling's only value is comedic and your life is far better off without this vile auditory intrusion. Avoid Earthling like the plague.
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I'm writing this as I find when I trawl through the Bowie ops that no one has written a piece on Earthling. I find this rather staggering but then I was the first person to ever write an op on Outside, when Bowie, at his latest gig, described fans of Outside as being his core fans (though I wasn?t there, my mate told me). Earthling, I'm reliably informed, came about from Bowie's obsession with Trent Reznor aka Nine Inch Nails. I'm not a big NIN fan, I like Closer though the explicit lyrics perhaps detract from the song. Still, it seems about right that Bowie considers Reznor starting point. Bowie is experimenting with a harsher, some say Drum and Bass sound. I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. The first moments of Little Wonder (the first track) seem more drum and guitar, which sums up the album for me. Reeves Gabrels' guitar on this is just like Gabrels? guitar on any of his albums, raw and loud, and seems to take over the bass with his own raucous musical iconoclasm. I'll admit I have to be in the mood for this album, but when I am it's truly great. Still there is a bit of me that recognises that this is no more than Bowie having a mid-life crisis on record and sold en masse. Yet there is something wonderful about this album and it is that it is something different. So many artists rest on their laurels and never make anything interesting and different. Here Bowie admittedly tries to be contemporary and cool but he also dares to be different. He throws down the gauntlet and lets himself go with something entirely out of the ordinary. OK, it's not as great as Outside, but for those who?ve read my op will know I love Outside and genuinely believe it's something special, still this is a powerful and inventive album. So let me step aside and allow myself to walk you through the album that is Earthling. "It's little wonder, you little wonder you," Little Wonder, the fir
st track, is perhaps the closest to drum and bass the album really gets (though see my note above re: Gabrels). That said it isn?t whatsoever. It was always my least favourite track but over time I have grown to find that I have an uneasy alliance with it. I rather enjoy this track though my music sensibilities (though no one including myself can pin them down, hell I've been listening to little better than IDM lately, my friends would be horrified) are disgusted that I do rather enjoy it. It's not a subtle track and Gabrel?s powerful guitar shrieks over Bowie's cockney accented lyrics. It's a love-hate kinda thing. Looking For Satellites is an odd track as though I've listened to it quite a few times I can?t remember much of it beyond the title of the track being sung by Bowie and yet I can't think that I remember it being dismal. It is perhaps a little anaemic (but then I always feel that Bowie's glam-rock period is also anaemic, then picks up with Low and he really hits his stride (Fripp helps on guitar, but then when does he not?). This is not a filler in the way some of the tracks on Bowie's tedious Young Americans album are (unless you're a sax fan in which case you can listen out for Michael Brecker) but it's not a masterpiece. The Letter is another strange one where I can hear the title of the track being sung. It is also another track that I have to be in the mood for. That is not to say that that is necessarily a bad thing. Something that is always palatable is generally going to be blandly puerile (there are times when I don't feel like listening to Bowie's Heroes, Ashes to Ashes and I'm Deranged, which is saying something (also other tracks by other artists but that's another op) and this is not bland or puerile. It?s got more of Bowie's cockney vocals and maybe a little of Aphex Twin's (or Autechre, for that matter) Drill-ness about it, but maybe that's jus
t me. Seven Years in Tibet is the name of ?that? track that I can never remember the name of but is great. It starts off with a slow beat and Bowie's sax; then the vocals kick in before a crashing chorus. This is the first and possibly greatest track on the album (bar I'm Afraid of Americans; see later). It has a real power and sense of musicality to it. It is the apotheosis of the album. From somewhere Bowie, Gabrels and co. manage to come up with a track that moves between DnB and rock and somehow transcends it all. It is an amazingly good track for coming out of the blue. The slow burning introduction, lazy and almost jazz like, suddenly wallops you, but in a good way. This is a track to wallow in, to let it flow around you at a very loud volume. And yet that doesn't even begin to sum it. Seven Years... makes you want to jump up and dance, which when you're listening to it at work is not necessarily a good thing. The song on the other hand, is a very good thing indeed. Telling Lies is yet another superb track with the exception of a bizarre distortion of Bowies singing 'Telling lies,' that sounds every few minutes when the song is at its most quiet. This is in many ways a brutal track, with another punishing satisfying chorus in which Bowie really gives full voice to his vocals. And yet the music behind it is no less forceful, as one should not forget Gabrel's vital contribution to this album, both as a musician and as a songwriter. This is a track of great cathartic value, like Seven Years in Tibet, because, if you agree with me, when you're tense you want something equally as tense to calm you down and not some bland chillout. You need Telling Lies, or Bach's first violin concerto. Or Sus-tayn-z, or Heavy ContrucKtion by ProjeKct 2. Music with real power and the ability to wear you out with their remarkable and sublime tension. This is that! Last Thing you Should Do is admittedly a
s close to writing a bad song as this Bowie gets on this album. It's a torpid track that never picks up; it's waddles along and is pretty unexciting. It feels like a filler, added to make up the numbers. I usually skip it when I listen to the album. Enough said. The title of the penultimate track it true of me: I'm Afraid of Americans. Noticeably he made a different version of this with who? Go on, guess? ok, I'll tell you: Trent Reznor. And why? It's great. Why is it great? Well, I can tell you in a word. Eno. This is Eno's only contribution to the album. It's written by the two of them. It has Bowie's power, Gabrels frantic, frenetic guitar and Eno's near prescient ability to use minute sounds at the right moments. It is a truly sublime track that is very modern without trying sound like something else. The producer of many of Bowie's 70s albums, as well as Heathen and Reality, Tony Visconti, said of Eno, that he was the only artist he knew that could keep pace with Bowie. In this he is almost true, Fripp also does. But the point is nevertheless cogent and valid. Eno is like a conduit for Bowie, he channels his creativity and brings of it something remarkable. Eno, noticeably, did the same for Fripp. Bowie and Eno complement one another beautifully and one wonders why they don't collaborate more often. A track to savour. Law (Earthlings on Fire) is perhaps the epitome of the album, it is somehow strange to place and yet regardless of myself I rather like it. It is somewhere between rock, D'n'B, Dance and about a million other modern music genres (a terms I loathe but is annoying useful). It is longer than the other tracks on the album and in many ways the most derivative and yet it is also very much Bowie. Bowie's vocals sound like they've come from one of his own albums and not someone else's. It is a slow burn kinda song. It has a tension that doesn'
t come to a point like Telling Lies, and yet it doesn't quite seem as lost as Little Wonder. Law, moves around the middle ground. I enjoy it, perhaps because I see in it a great track in the making. In this sense maybe it truly is the epitome of the album. Here is a great album in the making and yet it falls flat here and there, also here and there, there are moments of greatness as magnificent as any of the great Bowie albums, whether it be Heroes, Lodger or Outside. I can't go much further than my previous comment, though I feel the need to defend this album. Too many people seem to think anything after Scary Monster and before Heathen should be ignored. This is a pathetically narrow-minded argument. Let's Dance has a few good tracks. Tonight and Never Let Me Down are naff, Tin Machine is OK, Black Tie, White Noise, has some good moments, Outside, well, AMAZING, then Earthling (followed by Hours, perhaps not the most original of albums but has some great songs on, some not so great but an all round winner). This mid-nineties to before-Heathen period should not be dismissed as Bowie is doing what he has always done. He has re-defined himself, re-invented himself in a time when there was no reason for him to have any relevance whatsoever, when he could have come out on stage and repeated his 70s glory and gone no where new. He dared to be different and it didn't always pay off but there are moments when the Bowie we know and love shine through, where he transcends himself and becomes, as he is oft described as, an artist. For those interested in purchasing this moment of dubious magnificence, you can purchase it at Amazon for a mere £6.66, (curiously, perhaps there is something satanic about this album) or from all good record shops, as the adverts say.
Taking yet another sharp turn in his career, Bowie turned his back on following up 1. Outside (with 2. Contamination) by treading down the Drum'n'Bass route instead. While the disc could have been an absolute nightmare, with the help of a couple of hit singles, the Thin White Duke has managed to maintain his credibility. Bowie also follows his 'song with a movie title' theme (that spawned Look Back In Anger) by composing 'Seven Years In Tibet'.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Little Wonder
2 Looking For Satellites
3 Battle For Britain (the Letter)
4 Seven Years In Tibet
5 Dead Man Walking
6 Telling Lies
7 The Last Thing You Should Do
8 I'm Afraid Of Americans
9 Law (Earthlings On Fire)
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Little Wonder (Censored Video Edit)
2 Little Wonder (Junior Vasquez Club Mix)
3 Little Wonder (Danny Saber Dance Mix)
4 Seven Years In Tibet (Mandarin Version)
5 Dead Man Walking (Moby Mix 1)
6 Dead Man Walking (Moby Mix 2 US Promo 12")
7 Telling Lies (Feelgood Mix
8 Telling Lies (Paradox Mix)
9 I'm Afraid Of Americans (Show Girls OST version)
10 I'm Afraid Of Americans (NIN V.1 Mix)
11 I'm Afraid Of Americans (Nine Inch Nails V1 Clean Edit)
12 V-2 Schneider (Tao Jones Index)
13 Pallas Athena (Tao Jones Index)