INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo Ultimate Collectors Edition FEBRUARY 2007 - by Steve Malins
IT AIN'T EASY
David Bowie's return to enthusiasm and creativity after the nadir of the '80s had actually begun with Tin Machine, even if he hadn't quite re-mastered the art of converting ambition into an alluring final product. In 1993, the BBC commissioned Bowie to write the soundtrack for an adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel, The Buddha Of Suburbia. He then went on to record an album based on some of the musical ideas used in the series.
After six days in the studio, Bowie had come up with the elegant Strangers When We Meet, the Neu!-inspired pop of Dead Against It and hauntingly beautiful The Mysteries, all of which caught the attention of an impressed Brian Eno. Within a few months, Eno was back in the studio with Bowie for the first time since 1979's Lodger, effectively reconnecting the latter with his Berlin art-rock past.
The 1. Outside album arrived in 1995 with a lot of baggage. Not only was there a hope that the project could - whisper it - be the new Low or "Heroes", but the CD also came with a concept, described by Bowie as a "non-linear gothic drama hyper-cycle". Although it didn't quite live up to the hype, 1. Outside is one of Bowie's finest albums of the last twenty-five years. The sound is opulent and adventurous throughout, taking elements of those old Berlin albums but stretching them into something fresh, distorted and weird. Imagine Scott Walker produced by Nine Inch Nails (in fact, Walker's own Tilt album shares some similarities with 1. Outside), except that Bowie has a lot more humour and is less introspective than either of them.
For all its images of self-mutilation and oblique science fiction, this is a strangely life-affirming and passionate album, fizzing with some fantastic songs, ranging from the panoramic Thru' These Architects Eyes to the brilliant pop of I Have Not Been To Oxford Town via the manic charm of I'm Deranged. It's also a delicious rampage through the unhealthy obsessions of Bowie's old '70s characters (he even sings Hallo Spaceboy as if cheerily welcoming back an old, rather mixed-up, slightly dangerous friend) and a genuine attempt to capture the mood of the times.
"The album also has some sort of a feeling of this new paganism that seems to be springing up with the advent of scarifications, piercing, tribalisms, tattoos and whatever," Bowie explained in '95. "It's like a replacement for a spiritual starvation that's going on. It's like a tribe with dim memories of what their rituals used to be. They're sort of being dragged back again in this new, mutated, deviant way, with so-called gratuitous sex and violence in popular culture and people cutting bits off themselves."
For the first time since 1980's Scary Monsters, Bowie was seeing the world through the eyes of misfits, mavericks and outsiders, drawing on controversial performance artists such as Orlan and Ron Athey as an influence, and even the paintings of the inmates at the Guggin psychiatric hospital near Vienna, which he and Eno visited during the album sessions. He was also taking risks, in particular his decision to tour the US with Nine Inch Nails, who were at their peak and had a rabid, youthful fan base. The forty-eight-year-old English eccentric didn't always win over this difficult new audience, but he still seemed to revel in it as a deliberate break from the mainstream.
Determined to keep the momentum going, Bowie took his band straight into the studio after touring 1. Outside, and in just under three weeks they'd cut a new album. While 1. Outside had connected the Thin White Duke with the growing alternative scene in the States (NIN, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, who had covered The Man Who Sold The World during their MTV Unplugged performance), new album Earthling mashed together industrial rock with British dance beats, as pioneered by the likes of Goldie, Underworld and The Prodigy.
Rather like 1. Outside, false expectations have undermined Earthling's reputation, in particular that it's a drum'n'bass album. It's true that there are three or four tracks with machine-gunning jungle beats, but then I'm Deranged and We Prick You had already utilised rhythms from the dance underground on the previous album, Bowie treats the skittering electronic percussion as backing tracks for songs, which is light years away from the kind of time-stretching, semi-ambient material Goldie was producing.
Rather than being a second-hand replica, Earthling is another defiantly original Bowie record. It's also his most exuberant and consistently up-tempo since the early '70s with Reeves Gabrels' avant-garde guitar solos matching the power and energy of Bowie's greatest sidekicks, Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. Tracks such as Dead Man Walking and Looking For Satellites show that Gabrels, who had been with Bowie since Tin Machine, was reaching a new peak. Bowie also merrily curates his own past on Earthling, even conjuring up an old Ziggy-like vaudeville feel on tracks such as Little Wonder and Battle For Britain through his first-take Anthony Newley vocals. Just in case you missed it, Bowie emphatically declares this as his British album by wearing a Union Jack frock coat on the cover, imposed against an idyllic image of England's green and pleasant land.
Skip to autumn 1999, though, and Bowie is in a completely different mood, reflected in the artwork for the new album, Hours.... The image shows him cradling the spiky-haired Earthling incarnation, who looks as though he's the latest creation to be killed off by Bowie. There's an air of world-weary defeat that hangs over Hours..., an awareness of his growing cultural obsolescence. The spectre of age - Bowie was now in his early fifties - meant that he was increasingly perceived as a rather embarrassing figure attempting to "get down with the kids".
As a result, the newspapers were more interested in his marriage to the supermodel Iman than his recent albums, and the infamous $55 million Bowie Bonds scheme at the end of the '90s also grabbed the headlines, after which he allowed some of his back catalogue to be used as music for TV ads. This also meant that at the end of the '90s Bowie's past achievements seemed to haunt him more than ever. Yet Hours... is also a subtle move forward as further skins are shed, quietly this time rather than with a big fanfare. Self-doubt, generational fear ("I wanted to capture a universal angst felt by many people of my age"), the unreliability of memory, spiritual angst and regrets about past relationships float through the stark, dream-like songs like old ghosts.
Yet despite the melancholic echoes of his '70s work, there's also a sense of a new beginning illuminated by some ravishing melodies, especially on Survive, Seven, New Angels Of Promise and Thursday's Child, where Bowie offers a quiet optimism as he sings, "seeing my past to let it go".