Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bowie week - Outside (1995)



Between the "Berlin trilogy" (1977-1979) and "Outside" Bowie produced five solo albums (Scary Monsters, Let's Dance, Tonight, Never Let Me Down and Black Tie White Noise) as well as two albums with Tin Machine (Tin Machine I and II). The solo albums didn't offer anything new to the listener, they had varying degrees of success (Let's Dance remains Bowie's biggest selling album) and Tin Machine seemed to have been misunderstood at the time despite the albums actually sounding like a 'proper' band.

The release of "Outside" in 1995 saw Bowie reunited with Brian Eno, if that prospect sounded exciting the idea of an album that was based upon the lives of "a set of dystopian characters on the eve of the 21st century" prompted the response, "yes, but does it have any good tunes?"

Thankfully it did, in fact the sessions that resulted in the album produced enough material of sufficient quality for Bowie to consider releasing it as the first in a three album set - he didn't, due to pressure from his record label and we had to 'make do' with nineteen tracks that could be put on one 75 minute long CD, sung by various characters, each voiced by Bowie. The main character is Detective  Nathan Adler, a government employee who is assigned the task of investigating the phenomenon of art crime.

"Leon Take Us Outside," kicks off the album, the narrator on this track is Leon Blank and the track lasts less than two minutes before segueing into the title track. What is evident, even this early into the 'project' is that Bowie has a band working with him rather than a collection of superstar session musicians, trusted sidekicks such as Eno, Reeves Gabrels (guitar), Mike Garson (piano), Sterling Campbell (drums) and Carlos Alomar (guitar) create the impression of playing at the top of their game, which ultimately is a shame because whilst there is nothing wrong with the concept, the playing, the songs or the recording and whilst it is also easy to agree that this was Bowie at this best since Lodger it falls down by trying to be too clever, of having, would you believe, too many ideas.

The reason it is too clever is that the non-linear structure, which works in books or movies (Tom Twyker, of whom I am a big fan, has built a whole career around the concept/deceit), ultimately fails in a body of work that must be listened to and made sense of. The music is superb, Mike Garson's piano playing recalls his playing on the Aladdin Sane album, particularly that albums title track, whilst Reeves Gabrels (who had been part of Tin Machine) drives each track along with the urgency of a man for whom his record could be his last pay cheque. The mixture of musical styles doesn't necessarily fit together as a cohesive work either, "The Hearts Filthy Lesson," which has an almost funky undertone leads into "A Small Plot of Land," which has Sterling Campbell playing a latin/jazz drum pattern over which Bowie as 'the residents of Oxford Town, New Jersey," recites the story of a small town 'dunce'.



"Hallo Spaceboy" was remixed by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, the original version made the charts for Bowie but again it was hardly a guide as to what the album as a whole contained.

The other stand out track, to those mentioned above, is the albums closing track, "Strangers When We Meet", of course the irony is that this track wasn't even written for the album but for the 1993 BBC series The Buddha of Suburbia based on Hanif Kureishi's book of the same title.

It is a challenging album and musically it recalls bits and pieces of all the best of his earlier work but ultimately the sum of its parts is too great for the weight of its whole to carry.  The jumping from one style of music to another makes it unsettling to listen to, although that is not a bad thing in itself, it is Bowie seeking to give a different 'voice' to each other the characters who inhabit the story.

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