David Bowie has always taken us to strange, wonderful and disturbing places. Along the way, he's created a unique sound and vision that embodies our fascination with living in the specter of imminent apocalypse. This sense of impending chaos is underlined by the disembodied voice that demands "I don't want knowledge, I want certainty" at the outset of Law (Earthlings On Fire), the last song on Bowie's new Virgin album Earthling.
Building on the excitement of a triumphant year-long world tour with his band, Earthling has large doses of energy and aggression. Whereas his last album, 1995's critically acclaimed Outside, was a complex, multi-layered record, Earthling, is "all very direct, hard-hitting, to the point-- strong songs, well delivered and no frills--a very different approach," says Bowie, who's produced his own album for the first time since his 1974 classic Diamond Dogs album. "Four or five days after getting off the road, we were in the studio," he adds. "We wanted to record as fast as possible without losing momentum."
Recorded in New York City, Earthling feeds on this momentum, as Bowie (vocals, guitars, alto sax, samples and keyboards) and his band-- Reeves Gabrels (guitar, vocals and synthesizers), Zachary Alford (drums), Mike Garson (piano and keyboards) and Gail Ann Dorsey (bass, vocals)-- adventurously fuse rock with modern rhythms while never losing sight of the songs themselves. Tracks like Little Wonder, Telling Lies, Battle for Britain (The Letter) and The Last Thing You Should Do are precedent- setting hybrids of aggressive rock and jungle (drum and bass) rhythms. Here, Bowie's inimitable vocals and left-of-center melodies ride on top of powerful guitar thrusts, jarring keyboard flights and tricky time changes. Adventurous rhythms also drive the hyperactive dance track Dead Man Walking, the percolating, funky I'm Afraid of Americans, and the slow-groove trance-like Seven Years In Tibet.
Rolling Stone magazine has already noted of Earthling: "It isn't surprising that Bowie's experimentation with underground club grooves is producing some of his most vital music in years," wrote Matt Diehl. "Many of Bowie's most artistically satisfying albums (Station to Station) and commercially successful ones (Let's Dance, Young Americans) followed a similar path." Bowie himself told the magazine: 'I've never been a purist-- Goldie it ain't. Instead, I wanted to couple my hard-rock band with a melody-driven jungle subtext.'"
It's classic Bowie throughout Earthling, satisfying and spooky all at once, as he mixes his croon with his disembodied voicings. These songs already began to make a strong impact when Bowie performed them live last year. Writing about the New York Roseland show in September '96, New York Times critic Neil Strauss enthused: "In the epic 'Little Wonder,' the drummer Zachary Alford played along with frenetic jungle beats, pausing occasionally for Reeves Gabrels to fill in the breaks with moody guitars riffs. More important, the vocals and sung melodies were emphasized in 'Little Wonder' as well as in the other new songs the band performed." Jon Wiederhorn of Rolling Stone noted: "Bowie's new songs were similarly forward-thinking but still accessible and perhaps indicative of the direction he's taking on his album in progress. The infectious 'Little Wonder' juxtaposed militant drum-and-bass rhythms against Bowie's vibrato-laden vocals. 'Seven Years in Tibet' weaved steely guitar slices through slithery string samples over ominous, industrialized-sounding percussion." Finally, the San Diego Tribune's George Varga summed it up by commenting that "his new songs struck a fine balance between the melodic pop appeal and experimental edge of his best works."
The arrival of Earthling follows an extraordinarily active year-and-a- half period for David Bowie, who's been switching styles and moods effortlessly. One minute he was embarking on a tour around the U.S. with Nine Inch Nails, the next he was performing acoustically with Neil Young and Pearl Jam at the Bridge School Benefit Concert in San Francisco. He rocked out the top brass at the Kremlin and during a triumphant '96 summer trek he headlined prestigious festivals like Roskilde and Phoenix, playing to crowds of 90,000 and 60,000 respectively, but by September, he was doing performances at packed ballrooms on the East Coast.
As the tour ended in September, Bowie and his band went directly into the studio. The result is Earthling, which was co-produced by Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati (known for mixing tracks by Big Audio Dynamite, New Order, Babylon Zoo and Soul Coughing). The nine songs were either written or co-written by Bowie: he collaborated with Gabrels on three; Gabrels and Plati on four; and Brian Eno on one ("I'm Afraid of Americans"). Explains David: "The genesis for this album was the dynamic achieved and harnessed by the end of the summer tour. I was working as part of a group of musicians who all valued each other; by the time of the album, the five of us had bonded as a unit and we wanted to satisfy the tour energy with new songs.
"The five of us have been working together since February 1996: this was the nucleus of the eight-piece band that I was touring with at the end of 1995. Mixing that band in large halls was very difficult: I thought if I stripped the fat away, it would sound more direct."
David explains further the inspiration behind Earthling. "We're working with processes that dance utilizes. Reeves is playing what he would play and transferring it to synthesizer keyboards. Zachary does percussion loops, then plays live over the top. I still, as I did in the late 70s, find the combination of tech and organic 'real' instruments the most satisfying and totally representative of the way I work. In this last year and a half, we've pretty much perfected the live mixing problems of balancing samples and loops against live playing and singing in, say, a festival situation. This combination of tech and live gives enormous freedom for stage and terrific power, great thrusting globs of sub-sonic bass and the like. The band who turned me on to this was Big Audio Dynamite some years ago: there were 2 or 3 minutes in their show when I thought 'This is the future.' For a long time, I've wanted to go further than that: what we're doing now is putting into practice what I knew I wanted then.
"When I was a kid, I was very excited by R&B. I tried hard to give a peculiar, almost vaudevillian slant to put within an R&B context. What I'm doing now is not so very different: my own enthusiasms are industrial, drum & bass. The first track we did in this vein was 'Telling Lies': it's experimental--a succession of changes. We were trying to find out how to amalgamate a number of varied styles within one song." Last September, Bowie set a precedent for an artist of his caliber by releasing a full unreleased track--"Telling Lies"--exclusively on the Internet. In the first four days alone of its initial release, there were more than 46,000 downloads of the track--over 10,000 per day--with the website operating at maximum capacity. While mixes by drum and bass experts Adam F and A Guy Called Gerald of "Telling Lies" made their presence on the Internet, a new mix appears on Earthling. David readily admits: "We are not waving a banner for drum and bass. We couldn't do that: we're not hardcore enough. I've never been hardcore: I love the eclecticism of what I do well.
"With 'Little Wonder,' I thought I'd reactivate 'The Laughing Gnome: and the Seven Dwarfs of Snow White.' I wrote elements of it as fast as possible: I ran out of dwarfs so I made a few up and tried to draw them all together with a fake narrative. There are a number of jokey self-references thrown in for good measure: 'sit on my karma, dame meditation.'" "Battle for Britain - The Letter)," with its dynamic Zeppelin-style power chords, was strictly from random in the computer. David elaborates, "My worst fears are contained in the line: ' Don't you let my letter get you down."' Meanwhile, "'Seven Years in Tibet,'" says David, "started as a cut-up, and then I started to give form to it. It was inspired by the Heinrich Harrer book and my own interest in Tibetan Buddhism. The 'pigs' mentioned in the song represent the Chinese choppers that in the early '60's would daily fly missions to mow down hundreds of fleeting Tibetans. The 'frail farm' would represent the soul of Tibet. That's as much explanation as I would care to give that song. The rest of the power comes from the music itself. It's probably my favorite track on the album."
With its ever-catchy rhythmic changes, "Looking for Satellites" is a stream-of-consciousness, written off the cuff. David explains, "I used words randomly: 'Shampoo,' 'TV,' 'Boys Own.' Whatever I said first, stayed in. It's as near to a spiritual song as I've ever written: Now that the Christian narrative seems more distant than ever and we are poised with the prospect of imminent discovery of aliens, we start to pick up the pieces of our spiritual lives all over again.
"One track, 'Dead Man Walking,' was written straightforwardly," continues David. "It's a reflection on getting older. I recently worked with Neil Young at a benefit: he played acoustically with two members of Crazy Horse and they would slowly dance in a tight tribal circle. It was so moving, so poignant, they seemed to evoke and bring to life all that their youthful dreams and energies rested on: Rock and Roll lives on. The song owes a considerable amount to that performance. The guitar riff is the very first one anyone taught me: Jimmy Page came to a recording session I did with one of those groups I had in the mid-60s. He was Shel Talmy's session guitar player. He said, 'try this': it was really effective. 'I can't use it: you can have it.' It became 'Supermen,' and was revived on this one.
"'I'm Afraid of Americans' was written by myself and Eno. It's not as truly hostile about Americans as say 'Born in the USA': it's merely sardonic. I was traveling in Java when the first McDonalds went up: it was like, 'for fuck's sake.' The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life."
While Bowie has been long venerated in England and Europe, it has taken him until the '9Os to reach his fullest influence in America: Nirvana's cover of his "The Man Who Sold The World" is forever with us on Kurt Cobain's last record. Bowie has been cited as an inspiration by many others among the Nirvana generation: Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, and Nine Inch Nails, whose Trent Reznor collaborated with Bowie on the fall 1995 tour. 1996 saw the release of the "Basquiat" in which Bowie played the character he immortalized in his 1972 song "Andy Warhol." His co-stars are Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper; his director, America's preeminent painter Julian Schnabel.
Bowie's influence and songs are also found in current film soundtracks including Basquiat, which contains "A Small Plot Of Land," and the hit film Seven features "The Hearts Filthy Lesson," while "I'm Deranged" is in David's Lynch's Lost Highway. All three of these tracks are taken from Bowie's 1995 Outside album. Also of note is Bowie's presence on the "Trainspotting" soundtrack: he produced and co-wrote the Iggy Pop's 1977 classics "Lust For Life" and "Nightclubbing," and co-produced the Lou Reed 1972 gem "Perfect Day." In the world of dance, Bowie's "Heroes," set to a score by Phillip Glass, was a key part of the 1996 Twyla Tharp dance tour. Like all his best work, Earthling, although firmly rooted in the now, places him at the forefront of popular culture doing what he does best, singing and writing himself into our future. Other artists are trying to catch up to where he's already been.