David Bowie has never been one to shy away from bringing experimentation and theatricality into his music. Some of his greatest artistic successes are the product of toying with musical conventions. Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars deconstructed and mastered the burgeoning glam rock genre. Low, arguably his best album, was heavily influenced by German krautrock. He has also tried his hand at 80s dance music (Let’s Dance), stadium anthems (“Under Pressure,” his collaboration with Queen), and the unlikely role of rock elder statesman (2002’s Heathen). One decade noticeably absent from appraisals of his career is the 1990s. It’s not that I’ve never heard anything bad about his output during this decade, but that I have never heard anything about his work in the 90s.
Arriving in the middle of that decade, Outside is the focus of this feature’s second installment. The album appeals to me because I remember hearing of a “David Bowie industrial album,” and the thought of it is intriguing. In the hands of the wrong producer, a project such as this might be doomed from the start. Fortunately, Bowie paired with Brian Eno, his late 70s collaborator on the famed Berlin Trilogy. Eno had recently produced U2’s Achtung Baby and Zooropa (both heavily indebted to the industrial and electronica styles of the time), so it is natural that Bowie sought to harness some of his creative energy. The other fortunate elements are that this record is neither truly industrial nor is its concept all that crucial to listener enjoyment. The big question is whether or not these elements make for a worthy album, and the answer is yes, with a few reservations.
The main problem with the record is the story that connects the songs. Scattered throughout the album are six “seques” that attempt to move the story forward. The themes explored are dystopian future and millennial angst, which would be interesting if the spoken word elements of the story were compelling enough to follow. Thankfully the music is strong, and that’s where the Bowie/Eno collaboration really shines. The title track is an ominous piece of work, giving the listener a proper introduction to the album with its jangled guitars, hissing keyboards, and Bowie’s masterful vocals taking the lead. Interestingly, after each song title there is an indication of which character’s perspective Bowie sings from, for example, “No Control” is “sung” by Detective Nathan Adler. Even when he sings for different characters, Bowie’s voice is as strong as ever on this album, with detached deliveries interspersed with an actor’s flair for voice acting.
Other highlights of the album include singles “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and “I’m Deranged,” with the latter two as the most industrial-sounding tracks on the album. What makes this set work is that Bowie never appears to be mimicking a trend. It’s not like Rod Stewart making a disco song, or any other musical juxtapositions. He does an admirable job navigating a new musical direction, with only “Thru These Architects Eyes” sounding a tad bit dated. The ensuing tour with Nine Inch Nails (check out a video example HERE) shows the young band embracing this influential figure by playing a few songs with him as a segue way between sets (As a side note, some of Trent Reznor’s recent work bears an unmistakeable Bowie influence, especially the soundtrack to The Social Network). It’s telling that the then current trendsetters in popular music were willing to play someone else’s material, even if they could sell out arenas based on their own reputation. While not everything works on the album, the stronger tracks shadow the weaker material.
A lot can be said about aging musicians in our youth-obsessed culture, but David Bowie remains an exception to the rule. He has managed to appropriate various trends through the years, and even as he approached fifty that sense of adventure and experimentation remains intact. He is willing to take risks and follow his muse wherever it leads him, and in the case of Outside, the results are often brilliant.
This feature takes a look at overlooked and under appreciated albums in an artist’s discography, as well as examining under appreciated artists. I will see how these albums and artists hold up over time. This might be a once in a while feature, but I’ll try to keep it going as long as I can. If there are any suggestions for a future post, feel free to send it my way!