Earthling: David Bowie

James Bennett
Copyright Telegraph Group Limited, London, 1997

GET this: the new album by clapped-out old has-been David Bowie contains some of his best work since Scary Monsters 17 years ago. Yes, really! I didn't quite believe it either, but repeated playings have convinced me it's more than wishful thinking.

Cynics are right to be cautious after 1995's Outside album turned out so contrary and unlovable. But the live tour that followed its release showcased a revitalised Bowie, and that live energy has gone into Earthling, recorded in one week at the end of the tour.

Where Outside aimed at the head and mostly missed, Earthling - at half the length and twice the energy - goes for the guts and mostly hits. Savage riffs attack in wave after wave and, depending on your proclivities, they'll either have you clapping your hands over your ears or cranking up the volume.

Much has been made of the jungle or drum-and-bass bent to the new album, but, although the clattering rhythms are present, their importance has been overstated. This ferocious industrial rock owes more to Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails than Tricky or Goldie. Yet, from this uncompromising sound, Bowie fashions something surprisingly commercial and accessible thanks to a generous supply of singalong hooks.

The voice is back to full-on Sarf London, the lyrics are impressive-sounding nonsense and the whole thing is something like The Man Who Sold the World meets Scary Monsters in the jungle.

It's not all good news. Half an hour and six tracks in the album concludes with a quartet of interesting but unremarkable tracks. Still there's more than enough here to make Earthling a conclusive argument against forcible retirement of rock stars at 50.

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