HALFWAY through Earthling, Bowie repeatedly intones `Ooh, ah, visionary', and it's transparently obvious he's referring to himself. Forgive him. He is 50, an age that has proved critical for the rock stars who've reached it before him. For `Sir' Paul McCartney it marked an almost total withdrawal from recording, while Mick Jagger has sulked like a teenager ever since. Bowie, however, has shown more dignity, simultaneously accepting the ageing process (but that `mature' goatee's got to go) and displaying keen interest in new music.
Earthling combines ye olde heritage-rock with cutting-edge drum and bass and does it so confidently you'd think he was 21. By allowing himself to be schooled by the likes of Leftfield and Goldie (who were in turn influenced by Bowie's prescient seventies electronic trilogy, Low/Heroes/Lodger), he has rediscovered a vitality that had been absent since the early eighties. Recorded in eight days, Earthling is all the more entertaining coming after 1995's Outside, whose wholly forgettable tunes revolved around Bowie in the role of an `art detective'. Producer Brian Eno apparently operated by handing each musician a flashcard with an instruction like `You are the last survivor of a catastrophe. Play in such a way as to prevent loneliness developing within yourself.' Worse, Outside was the first part of a new trilogy that - be afraid - is to be continued next year.
Fortunately, Earthling has nothing to do with Outside. It is, if anything, the antidote. `It's a lot more commercial than his recent albums,' a palpably relieved RCA Records describes it, praising its `direct, hard-hitting' approach. And while Outside was lyrically verbose, this is an album of flavours and textures to which Bowie has set words, rather than vice versa.
You've probably heard the opening Little Wonder as it's had more radio play than any other Davester single in years. Written, as were most of the tracks, by him and longtime guitarist Reeves Gabrels, it's jungle lite with a Cockney accent. Skip it. Begin instead with Looking For Satellites, which is both catchy and hugely annoying. Consisting of the singer reciting a post-mod shopping list (`TV, Shampoo, Boyzone', etc) over computer-game noises, it lingers like overripe Brie. The record starts hitting its stride with Battle Of Britain, which summarises his feelings about England (grumpier than you'd expect, considering how revered he has always been here: `A loser I will be for I've never been a winner in my life.' He does redress the balance a bit later with the heavy-rockoid I'm Afraid Of Americans). He pits an Ashes To Ashes-esque melody against a perky jungle percussion loop, bending the beat to his will in a most singular fusion of rock and drum & bass.
Seven Years In Tibet is outstanding and - coincidentally? - the most traditional thing here. Melancholy in the foreboding style of Low, it revolves around a war-weary vocal muttering lines like, `The skies look so special, the snow looks so old' (it's much better than it looks written down). But perhaps the most all-round interesting is Dead Man Walking, `a reflection on getting older'. Built on a squawking guitar riff and Zachary Alford's pattering electronic percussion, it features the chorus `I'm gone, gone, gone, I'm older than movies, I'm wiser than dreams' - rather poignant any way you look at it.
That said, there are too few really good songs for Earthling to rank as classic Bowie. You've got to credit him, though, for taking a chance. Alone of his generation he's still willing to learn - so regard it instead as an example of what can be achieved by a veteran pop star with an open mind.