Dara's Earthling review

Dara is one of the best Bowie experts around on Teenage Wildlife. Here is his pre-release review of Earthling.

16 January 1997
by Dara OKearney

First off, this album is brilliant. The signs for it were not great. The general vibe Bowie seemed to be giving off was that this was just a stop gap album on which he wanted to record to capture the energy of his live band, and the main focus was the next album with Eno. No Eno, no Alomar, and we were told that Bowie was going to produce it all by himself (in fact, Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati are credited as co-producers). There were rumblings about Tin Machine songs being dug up, Iggy and Lou covers, an outtake from Black Tie White Noise being resuscitated, all adding to the impression that Bowie was short of material, or at least holding the best stuff back for the next project with Eno. Telling Lies sounded great live, sounded great first time you heard it, but got real old real quick. With all that as background, it would be easy to shouts Pin Ups II or "filler" at this album, but I'm not gonna. Because it's simply brilliant. In my heart of hearts, I thought Outside was destined to be the last great Bowie masterpiece. In fact (in my opinion), he's followed it up with something even better.

This is the first album Bowie's made since Tin Machine II where he sticks consistently to one style. Although there are songs on it that remind me of this song off that album, it's clear that he is no longer looking backwards at his own 70s catalogue for inspiration. This is new music, the music of the present or the near future. This is Bowie at his very best, nicking an idea here, an approach there, and fusing it all together into something new that was not there before.

The fact that the style is warm, accessible and danceable (this is the first Bowie album since Let's Dance that I can't stop tapping my feet, drumming my fingers or nodding my head to) means that hopefully this album will do the big-time bizz commercially. The most startling thing for me is how new the sound is: in my opinion, this is the most radical change of sound Bowie has come up with in a long time.

Anyway, in time-honored tradition, let's go song by song:

Little Wonder: The album kicks off on a high note with this stormer that went down so well at the VH-1 Fashion Awards. The album version is longer. It wouldn't have been my choice as lead-off single though (or even second, third or fourth single). Not that there's anything wrong with it, but there are more attractive candidates (not to mention more immediate) than this.

Looking For Satellites: The first thing that hit me about this was: "Why the Hell does Dave name-check dodgy teen boy band, Boyzone?" at the start (in the middle of a recitation of context-less words including shampoo, TV, and nowhere). Once I'd realised he probably meant "Boy's Own" (arcane boy's comic that must have been around when Dave was growing up), I felt a bit better. This is still probably my least favorite track on the album though.

Battle For Britain (The Letter): At this point on my first listen, I was starting to feel a little queasy. The first two tracks struck me as okay, but nothing special. Little Wonder is fine, but not a classic IMO, and I was beginning to wonder, given its status as lead-off single, if it was the best Earthling had to offer. Then this song swung into action, and I relaxed. I see Bonnie wasn't too impressed by this, but this is one of my three favorites. As Bonnie said, it is a bit reminiscent of Tin Machine (especially Baby Universal IMO). Great hook (and the lyrics (Don't you let my letter get you down) are a masterpiece of repeating sounds)). Lyrically interesting, in that it seems to deal with Britain's post-colonial decline and struggle to find a place in the new world order, a theme close to the heart of at least one Bowie fan, Tony Blair.

7 Years In Tibet: This is my absolute favorite. In fact, I think that this is the best song Bowie has written since Ashes To Ashes. It starts with a lovely slow mechanical beat (which Antoine has rightly pointed out comes originally from the Bowie-penned Nightclubbing and not the NIN-penned "Closer", which many commentators are shouting plagiarist at Bowie for), and an instantly-memorable tense sax riff. When Bowie sings, he sounds far-away, distant, like a war correspondent reporting for radio from the war zone, and the words he sings are startling. He starts with the deceptively banal "Are you okay?" (at this stage I thought the song was a love song), kicks apart the peaceful scene-setting of that line by following it with "You've been shot in the head" (now I'm thinking Bowie is a doctor just arrived at a crime/war scene comforting the wounded), "And I'm holding your brains" (now it's clear that the words of the previous lines are pointless as they are directed at someone who is already dead) "The old woman said" (a final twist). Up until now, the music is wistful and calm, then the chorus arrives, sounding like Reeves just kicked in the door of the studio, nodded at the drummer to crank it up, and launched into a blistering screeching guitar bit that is again, like the drum beat and the sax solo, instantly memorable. Then the second verse gets going, Bowie's voice is no longer distant. The contrast between the screeching noise of the chorus and the deadpan vocal style Bowie delivers over the peaceful wistful verse backing is quite exquisite. The second chorus gets going with the same effect as the first, but this time Bowie, ever the surprise merchant, joins in, screaming a refrain with "I pray to you" over the top, again sending a shiver down my spine. Back to the verse, and again a twist: this time Bowie doesn't sing anything, letting us absorb the music. Then back to the final chorus, which literally 'lifts off' into a magnificent soundscape, reminiscent of Ashes To Ashes. In general, the soundscapes on this record are quite wonderful, the kind of exquisite minimal masterpieces that Bowie and Visconti created effortlessly on Iggy's The Idiot, Low and Scary Monsters. I sincerely hope this song is a single at some stage, preferably the second single. Everybody I've played it to loves it, even people who don't like Bowie, loves it.

Dead Man Walking: This is the great disco song Dave has been trying to write for the last 10 years or so, and must surely be a single at some point. Someone compared it to Lucy Can't Dance, and there are similarities, but this is much better. A great driving beat and melody line keep this song going and going, and the lyrics are very interesting. Bowie has always been smart enough to be able to look wryly at his career, and in 1987, according to Sandford's recent biography, he was telling friends that he was washed up, a has-been seemingly destined to put out albums that paled in comparison to his 70s work. This was the same year he doffed his hat to Prince, singing "little red corvette has passed me by". At that stage, it seemed to him the only way out was to retire. Now, ten years later, his artistic resurrection is so complete that he can sing "and I'm gone, through a crack in the past, like a dead man walking".

Telling Lies: This track, to me, is a revelation. I tired alarmingly quickly of the 3 Internet mixes, and even of the live version (which is basically a good old-fashioned stomp, which thankfully they've not tried to recreate on record). On Earthling, the arrangement is sparser, the song has more space and is not as frantic. Bowie sings in a nice understated voice with undertones of menace. There's a nice stop-the-song-start-again bit at the end featuring very simple but very effective keyboards (reminds me of Sakamoto).

The Last Thing You Should Do: My first reaction to this was that it was quite a slight song. I couldn't understand why some people said it could make a good single. Then, the next day, I was walking through the airport having heard the song only three or four times at that stage, and I couldn't get it out of my head. Lyrically, it sounds like a fairly simple love song, but dig a little deeper and you're in Please Mr. Gravedigger territory. "Save the last dance for me/Take the last bus with me/Give the last kiss to me/It's the last thing you should do", all delivered in Bowie's best icy menace voice: You get the picture. Brilliant, but I'm still not convinced it's a single.

I'm Afraid Of Americans: There seems to be a debate raging over whether this is better than the wilder more frantic Showgirls soundtrack version. Ironically (given the title), it seems to me at this stage at least to be splitting on American/non-American lines. Of the 5 Americans I know who have heard both, 3 prefer the Showgirls version. Of the 7 Europeans, all prefer this version, which is more restrained and ironic. In general, I think the record has quite a British sensibility running through it, with a lot of understated lyrics and arrangements, and an ironic contrast between warm accessible music and subtle dark deep lyrics that don't quite mean what you think they do, straight off. As with Telling Lies, the arrangement on this song is sparser, the pace less frantic, and generally the song has more breathing space than the previous version. This could make a good single, probably my fourth choice. Great lyrics - "Johnny wants a woman/Johnny wants to think of a joke".

Law (Earthling On Fire): My first reaction to this was similar to other people I know - Not great, doesn't really fit on the record, pulls the quality level down a tad. But it did grow on me. Reminds me of Pallas Athena, or more subtly, Dancing With The Big Boys (a song that closes an album it doesn't quite seem to belong on, with Bowie juggling the main components of the record together in a new way).

Everyone involved in the making of this record has reason to feel proud, most of all Bowie himself of course. But I would like to pay a special tribute to Reeves Gabrels, a man who has been much maligned by many people (many of them Bowie fans), and who I believe is more responsible than anyone else for Bowie's 90's resurgence. It is only fitting that he is credited as co-producer. The other co-producer is the new boy, Mark Plati, who is the major new component on this album and is clearly very influential on the overall sound (and gets a writing credit on a few tracks). As I said, I love the sound on this record, so I hope he will be around with Bowie for quite some time to come.

The others are known quantities, with Gail Ann, Zachary and Mike all doing their stuff as we know from the live shows they can. Mike's piano is, in the main, kept out of the business part of the album more than on Outside. Possibly as a result of commercial considerations, he is kept away from the drums 'n' bass and jungle end of things, and for the most part is restricted to instrumental breaks rather than the main body of the songs.

Bowie fans can never resist the temptation to compare any new Bowie album with others. Black Tie White Noise got compared to Young Americans, Let's Dance and Lodger. The Buddha of Suburbia got compared to Aladdinsane, Low, Heroes and The Man Who Sold The World. Outside got compared to Diamond Dogs, Low and Heroes. Already, Earthling has been compared to Pin Ups, Station to Station, Low, The Idiot, Scary Monsters, and Black Tie White Noise. The album it reminds me most of - purely in terms of approach - is Young Americans: warm lush music, cold hard lyrics ( Let's Dance has a bit of that too).

In mid 1974, Bowie found himself in the middle of a gruelling tour. Struggling under the pressures of cocaine addiction, the logistics of a set on a larger scale than anyone had attempted to lug around before, a management company that was bleeding him dry, Bowie was in serious danger of becoming the Last of the Glam Rockers. As he crossed America, he started to hear a new music, black music, and became convinced that the time for Soul had come. Junking the set, bringing soul musicians into his band, incorporating new unreleased songs, he transformed himself into a white soul boy, recording Young Americans, and his first American #1 hit single.

Move forward 22 years, and 1996 saw Bowie touring Europe in support of the critically-acclaimed but largely-ignored-by-the-masses album, Outside (which shared many of the dark apocalyptic themes and feel of Diamond Dogs). After a break, the tour swung over to Japan, then back to Europe via Russia. In Europe, he played to festivals, which drew a significantly different (and younger) audience than you would normally get at a Bowie concert. In Israel, fans and commentators remarked on how he took the time to watch Massive Attack, and how he seemed to be rivetted by them. This scene was repeated at other festivals throughout Europe, Bowie was listening to (and name-checking in interviews) acts like the Prodigy, Tricky, Goldie and the Chemical Brothers. Once again, he was hearing a new music. Drawing inspiration, he went into the studio and recorded this album, a new fusion of techno, drums 'n' bass and rock, to create something that no-one has done before. For all Bowie's talking down of expectations, he has knocked out a masterpiece, seemingly with the same ease he did back in the 70's. Simply put, Earthling is the work of a man who is on the streak of form of his life and can not put a foot wrong.

Remember: Earthling will be released on February 11 in the USA and February 3 in the rest of the world.

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