The Classics – 010

Friday, 22 February 2013

One quick trip through the annals of pop and rock music history will reveal how wildly common it is for an album for be described as “ahead of its time,” but what does that really mean? That the artist who made the record had the forethought to see where music trends were headed and rushed just far enough ahead of the curve to appear visionary when everyone else caught up? Presented in that light, a record which enjoys the stature of being “ahead of its time” loses a bit of its shine, but records which get ahead of the technological curve that everyone else is on – those which utilize recording methods, technology and styling that no one else has thought of or employed before, and listeners might not even realize are there until after playback technology catches up – are the truly remarkable achievements and rare joys to find. David Bowie's Earthling album is such a record.

Originally recorded in 1996, Earthling was David Bowie's twentieth album – but most critics were uninterested in the achievement the number implied. In fact, many critics had already been saying that the singer was washed up for years; a succession of lackluster albums (beginning with 1987's Never Let Me Down, and running through 1993's Black Tie White Noise and Buddha Of Suburbia) had definitely gone a long way to proving that the singer was in a deep slump and, even when things started to look up a bit (with 1995's Outside), fans were not easily sold on the notion that there was any going back. When word went out that Bowie had boldly jettisoned any and all rock star trappings from his persona and music, gotten interested in DJ and electronic music (rave, jungle, electronica) and was working on some new material which incorporated sonic elements with an eye toward artists like Underworld, Tricky, Sneaker Pimps, Massive Attack and Portishead, the result was an enormous chorus of dubious jeers; David Bowie would turn fifty soon at that time, and the idea that someone of his years could get into what was considered cutting edge culture like electronica and jungle was simply beyond belief. The proverbial peanut gallery was loaded with naysayers smirking with “I told you so” criticisms at the ready for the moment the Thin White Duke would fall on his face.

They may have hoped for a colossal flop, but Bowie didn't give detractors any ammunition in the nine tracks which comprised Earthling. In fact, the album was a defining point for the singer; Earthling incorporated elements of music that the singer had been working on for years already (there's no question that there were both sonic and stylistic ties between Earthling and Bowie's proto goth and industrial examinations on Scary Monsters and Outside, an embryonic incarnation of “I'm Afraid Of Americans” had appeared on Paul Verhoeven's passably risque film Showgirls in 1995, and “Real Cool World,” which appeared on the Cool World soundtrack was a stylistic cousin of Earthling as well) – but it all seemed to come together in a very charmed way on Earthling. The phenomenal rhythm section of Zachary Alford (previously best known for the drum work he'd done with Bruce Springsteen and for being the face behind the kit in The B-52s' “Love Shack” video) and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey (previously of Tears For Fears) set up a fantastic groundwork for keyboardist Mike Garson and programmer/producer Mark Plati to begin coloring and detailing the songs with myriad ornate passages, parts and effects, but the truly shocking and groundbreaking additions to this mix continues to be guitarist Reeves Gabrels' formal innovations which allow rock and jungle musics to intertwine and play out in real time, and Bowie's own stylistic innovations as well. Here, Gabrels [who had previously played with Bowie in the comparatively limp creation which was Tin Machine -ed] takes his encyclopedic knowledge of all forms and styles of rock music and his ability to cross-wire them into forms which could only be regarded as 'all his own,' throws out the rule book and completely re-thinks the concept of a guitar both as a songwriting implement and as a melodic instrument. Here, Gabrels uses (then) new technology including digital effects, a customized Parker Fly guitar and Roland VG-8 amplifier to make sounds which had never been known to come out of a guitar before; the guitarist utilized elements of shred and metal guitar as well as deconstructive, textural sound creation techniques which had previously been found most regularly in the work of industrial acts like Nine Inch Nails and Skinny Puppy and grafted the whole thing onto Bowie's poppy songwriting sensibilities to create a sound which went completely over the top and stood peerless in both the contexts of pop and rock; even over a decade after the album's original release (and well after the advent and insurrection of Pro Tools into every possible quadrant of recorded music production), the guitar sounds in songs like “Little Wonder” and “Searching For Satellites” sound totally cutting edge and alien.

The instrumental elements supplied by Garson, Dorsey, Plati and Gabrels would have been enough to mark Earthling as a brand new and bright creative day for David Bowie, but the singer had clearly developed a new set of ideas that he wanted to try on Earthling as well, and they represented a completely new angle of approach in the context of the singer's songwriting.

Through the first thirty years of his career, David Bowie had tirelessly endeavored to re-write the conventions of pop music orthodoxy as well as challenging the idea that a “personal voice” in popular song had to reflect a songwriter's actual experiences and/or beliefs by introducing more theatrical and dramatic forms in their place. That entire concept faltered a bit when “modern rock” (as a stylistic form) diminished in favor and alt-rock took to the cultural foreground, but Bowie really had a stroke of genius when he introduced a songwriting paradigm which didn't try to encapsulate the idea of “post-rock” or “post-punk” so much as simply attempt to articulate a style that was “Post-Bowie.” The idea of songs featuring “Post-Bowie” aesthetics and ideals basically meant that the singer was free to borrow from his own canon and re-contextualize ideas he had already struck gold with in the name of irony as well as a creative drive which sought to exemplify the new post-modernist value set which had already been taking the art world (all disciplines – visual art, music and theater) by storm. Using post-modernism as a creative drive for an album interested in electronic music (drum and bass, jungle) made it possible – even totally reasonable – for Bowie to go as far backwards as he wanted while also creating new sounds; when he has Mike Garson go back and reference his piano compositions from Diamond Dogs on “Battle For Britain (The Letter),” it doesn't feel like either is cannibalizing Bowie's catalogue so much as simply adding more depth and interconnectivity to the web that the singer had already been spinning for decades. The same is true of the guitar figure which drives “Dead Man Walking”; it is, in fact, a pretty blatant re-write of the guitar figure which powered “Starman” in 1972 [the singer confessed this during his appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien on April 10, 1997 –ed] but, re-contextualized as it is here with a galaxy of digital effects and a new vision, even long-time fans and archivists would be hard-pressed to notice or recognize the connection between the two. In that way, Earthling was most definitely a success, because it gave Bowie the chance to touch on new and exciting pop outlets without alienating older fans; in fact, Earthling redeemed the singer with older fans who had been completely alienated by the singer's abysmal Eighties efforts.

Now, with all of that on the record, back to the point broached at the beginning of this dialogue. It's probably already apparent that I was hooked by Earthling from the moment I first heard it sixteen years ago; I felt like it was the first David Bowie album released in my lifetime which held up to the legacy the singer had built through the Sixties and Seventies and I loved it. I listened to Earthling pretty constantly after I first heard it (the first thing I heard/saw was the band's appearance on Saturday Night Live on February 8, 1997 and had already bought the record before seeing the singer's next televised performance on Letterman) and, before too long, felt confident that I knew every single, solitary sound which appeared in every song on the record. As time passed, I stopped listening to to the album so much but, when the announcement that Bowie would be releasing The Next Day – the singer's twenty-fourth album, and first studio effort since 2003's Reality – on March 12, 2013 – I dug out my copy of Earthling and threw it on again for old time's sake. Not only did it still sound great, I got more than I expected. As it turns out, there's more to hear on Earthling than I realized and it only became apparent with the benefit of being played through some twenty-first century equipment (a set of Skullcandy Lowrider series headphones and a Sony Atrac 3 Discman); sounds which had been buried deep between the left and right channels suddenly made themselves known and I found myself with a whole new experience to try and absorb.

Played through equipment more than a decade younger than the record itself, Earthling suddenly offers listeners a host of tiny details that no one would believe went buried in the mix until now. On tracks like “Looking For Satellites,” “Little Wonder, ” “Dead Man Walking” “Seven Years In Tibet” and “I'm Afraid Of Americans,” little added streaks of guitar from Reeves Gabrels pan hard back and forth between the left and right channels like tiny rays of artificial intelligence while screaming, squalid digital shrieks from that same guitar punctuate different points throughout. Likewise, little bits of vocal which are so off-handed and were overshadowed so much by the sheets of guitar and keys that the only reason they remained in the mix is because everyone involved in the record's making forgot to erase them (like the “If it's good to you, it's gotta be good for you” line in “Little Wonder”) help to change the song from an earnest jumgle-pop/rock excursion to a more subversive and gothic workout. It's actually pretty remarkable to hear a record you thought you knew so well actually have more going on than you realized, without the pomp and ceremony of the “remixed and digitally remastered treatment which often gets applied to reissued albums now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Listening to Earthling now, the nine songs on the album come across not so much as completely new, but certainly as incredibly enriched by new playback technology. Listening now, it's completely apparent that Earthling was ahead of it's time because it offers listeners an even more vibrant experience now than it did upon its release in 1997. With that discovery made, it strikes this writer that it might be worthwhile to go back and re-absorb the rest of David Bowie's catalogue to see what other albums in it technology has only now caught up with while I wait for the release of The Next Day to come.


David Bowie – "Little Wonder" – Earthling[mp3]
David Bowie – "I'm Afraid Of Americans" – Earthling[mp3]
David Bowie – "I'm Afraid Of Americans" – Showgirls OST – [mp3]
David Bowie – "Real Cool World" – Cool World OST – [mp3]


remains in print. Buy it here on Amazon . Also, The Next Day will be released on March 12, 2013 via ISO/Columbia. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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