Over the past 15 years, David Bowie has done everything expected of a rock star- except make albums like the ones that made him famous in the first place.
He married a model (Iman), acted in films (most recently Basquiat) and concocted massive media events (most recently his 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden).
Bowie has made some interesting music along the way from the artful electronics of Black Tie White Noise to the thinking man's metal that fleshed out his two albums with Tin Machine. He's also moved a few units, thanks to Let's Dance (the best selling album of his career) and the platinum Tonight. It's not like he's been sitting on his back catalogue all these years.
But it takes hearing his new album, Earthling, to realise how much has been missing from his recent work. Because barely halfway through the albums opening track, Little Wonder, it becomes obvious just how much those last eight or nine albums have been lacking in essential Bowie-ness.
Some of it lies in the way he uses his voice, playing up the broad, cockney vowels in his self consciously stagey delivery; some lies with the forest of electronics the song wanders through , a dense thicket of processed sound that is as inviting as it is dark and mysterious.
Mainly, though, it has to do with the fact that none of that studio gingerbread ever quite obscures the classic lines of the song itself. So even though there's more going on in Little Wonder than the average ear can take in at a single hearing- jarring stop-start edits, impenetrable layers of guitar and synth, jittery percussion, shrieking bursts of distortion- it's hard not to be drawn in by the chorus.
Like so much classic Bowie, Little Wonder is a pop song in spite of itself. That was the trick that made Bowie's influence inescapable for a generation of English rockers.
It hardly mattered whether they took the glam-era albums like Aladdin Sane and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, or drew instead from the Brian Eno- produced Berlin Trilogy ( Low , Heroes and the Lodger), for the effect was the same.
What Bowie taught was that hooks or attitude alone were not enough; a true rock star knew how to combine the two for maximum impact.
Earthling certainly has it's share of attitude. Between the artful abrasiveness of the arrangements and the sly accessibility of the writing. Bowie conveys a confidence that borders on the cocky. Not since Scary Monsters has he seemed so sure that the chances he was taking would pay off, or that the wave he was riding was the right one. Certainly, he has a better sense of the prevailing trends than before. Ever one to keep up with the times, Bowie has built a large chunk of the album around the frenetic rhythms of drum and bass and it suits him.
Not only do those hyped up club beats reinforce the stylised approach to rhythm that has typified his best pop work (think Fame, Golden Years, Letbs Dance), but the drum breaks - sometimes sampled, sometimes played live by Bruce SpringSteen's former drummer Zachary Alford - work well with these songs, acting as a sort of aural adrenaline beneath the arrangements' chattering sequences and roaring guitars.
There's also a harmonic edge to the music , thanks to guitarist Reeves Gabrels and Keyboardist Mike Garson. Garson was the man responsible for the jazzy dissonances of Aladdin Sane, and he adds plenty of chordal complexity to this album as well, using the synths to conjure a demented calliope solo for the middle of Seven Years in Tibet, and capping Dead Man Walking with the sort of lithe, modal piano runs associated with Herbie Hancock.
Garson brings lots of colour and class to the arrangements , but it's Gabrels who gives the album itbs teeth. Gabrels may not have the profile of Bowiebs early guitarists ( think Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew), but he has more chops and imagination than any of them.
His approach to the instrument is totally chameleonic. One minute, his sound is thick and crunchy , almost a parody of power guitar; a moment later, it's sonic quicksilver, all shiny and squiggly and dangerous .
Put them all together, and the results are magical.
Dead man Walking is a perfect example. In terms of its verse and chorus, it's classic Bowie, with a slowly arching verse that builds elegantly to its brutal catchy chorus, but what makes the track addictive is the arrangement.
It isn't just the way Garson's percolating synths lend a breathless urgency to Alford's thumpingly insistent pulse, or the way Gabrel's slippery chorus hook contrasts against the sledgehammer insistence of Gail Ann Dorsey's bassline - it's all that and more, as the tune delivers a seemingly endless array of ear-candy. Seldom has the c.d player's repeat function seemed so nessesary.
But Earthling is packed with tracks like that. From the overdubbed harmony vocals of looking for satellites to the metal edged funk of Ibm Afraid of Americans, the album is sure to make any old time Bowie fan glad to have him back.