Thursday, 30 August 2018

David Bowie - Earthling (1997)


 

Released February 1997

Recorded in New York City

This was David Bowie's "dance" album, influenced by contemporary electronica and "drum and bass" synthesised sounds. It is not a genre that has ever really appealed to me, so, for that reason, it is not one of my favourite Bowie albums.

However, unlike a lot of drum and bass material, Bowie didn't simply take snippets, loops and samples of bits of other songs and paste them over a dance beat, he did create actual songs to go with the beat. They are lyrically pretty minimalist, but they are actual songs and do have a certain appeal. In some ways, though, the songs sound as if they are regular Bowie songs and he has slapped a dance beat on them. One wonders what they may have been like given a maybe more conventional rock backing, a soul backing, or a "Tin Machine" grungy backing. As it was, he wanted to give them a dance backing, so that was that. Beneath the slightly overwhelming backing, though, lie a few hidden treasures here and there. Bowie was always the great innovator, and he certainly is here. It is one of his most experimental albums, if not the most.

"Little Wonder" does indeed have an intoxicating rhythm, a catchy chorus hook - "so far away..." and all sorts of electric noises coming in and out of the song, behind the metronomic, thumping dance beat. There are guitar bits, keyboard bits, strings bits. It is a veritable cornucopia of sounds, making it stand out a bit from the usual dance stuff. "Looking For Satellites" is less frenetic, beat-wise and quite slow and industrial in its grinding beat and chanted vocal refrain about "shampoo, TV..." and so on. "Battle For Britain (The Letter)" actually sounds like a song from the "Space Oddity" era of the late sixties/early seventies until the huge drum machine rhythm kicks in. It has a great, sharp guitar interjection in places, which is quite exhilarating. The vocals just sound so evocative of that early era.

"Seven Years In Tibet" has really a chilled-out, quiet introduction and some plaintive Bowie vocals before a seriously huge, heavy blast of a chorus kicks in, then it goes quiet again. It is actually an intriguing song, with many facets. Typical Bowie in fact. "Dead Man Walking" sees a return to the 160 beats per minute, (or whatever it is), club beat backing. It has, beneath the synthesised onslaught, some excellent Bowie vocals and lyrics. It also has some interesting keyboard and guitar parts that have a Talking Heads feel to them in places. Right at the end, some recognisable Mike Garson piano arrives, a bit too late though.

"Telling Lies" is a sonorous, bassy thumper with another haunting and beguiling Bowie vocal. Again, one can't help but wonder what he song would have been like if given an alternative backing. The same applies to the mysterious "The Last Thing You Should Do", which features some searing guitar from old Tin Machine mate Reeves Gabrels. By now, listening to this album, the monotonous beat is starting to grate a bit, I have to admit. I am saved, though, by the gloriously powerful, riffy and addictively catchy "I'm Afraid Of Americans". This is, in my opinion, the best track on the album. It has some excellent lyrics, a great build up and a monster of a chorus. "Law (Earthlings On Fire)" has echoes of The Human League's "Sound Of The Crowd" in its vocal refrain. Otherwise it is pretty intransigent, clunky dance stodge. The album is not really my thing, but a dip into it every now and again can't harm.

C

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