Earthling (1997)

1997

TRACKS

1. Little Wonder: Opening with an awkward high-pitch synth loop and jungle beats over some decent live drums; it’s a conventional song with a bouncy melody which Bowie could’ve written in his sleep anytime around 1967. It’s the first of several mocknee-avant nursery rhyme ditties, extended instrumental passages and cutting-edge programmed percussion let down by being a cluttered mess and the disappointing repetitive refrain of “so far away” when the song was screaming out for a strong hook-laden chorus. Sadly, gone too was Bowie’s effortless cool for the videos from this period. This one unwatchable. 4.0

2. Looking for Satellites: Intro vocal pattern quite interesting “Nowhere, shampoo, tv …”, and a beautifully paced shuffle makes way for a lovely Lennon-esque vocal melody in the verse, it has a bountiful style and sound and is the best track here comfortably. Actually when Bowie finally gets around to singing “looking for satellites” it’s the highest point of the album. Reeves Gabrels telegraphs his signature tortured guitar noodling and goes for a Fripp-style slow-burn solo for the outro and nearly pulls it, and his whammy bar, clean off. 6.0

3. Battle for Britain (The Letter): Turbo-charged guitars, obnoxious drum programming and avant-garde flourishes from Mike Garson, it’s the same problem with ‘Little Wonder’ and most proper songs here: it sounds half-written to me. 3.5

4. Seven Years in Tibet: Obviously going for the loud/quiet/loud juxtaposition, there’s some good things about this stilted, lengthy track: cool lounge jazz, Bowie’s alto sax, a wandering bassline, electronically treated vocals and now stock standard Gabrels’ scratchy squeals. Unfortunately the two-chord verse pattern is swamped by a NIN pulverising industrial power riff in the chorus. 4.0

5. Dead Man Walking: A pleasingly simple melody, tuneful and catchy, chewed up and spat out by overblown dance club beats and irritating samples. Incomparable to the wonderful acoustic live version. 5.0

6. Telling Lies: Immediately sounds the same as track one, exactly the same jungle beats, but this time tune-free plodder. No thanks. 3.0

7. The Last Thing You Should Do: Blips and bleeps and overbearing Nine Inch Nails inspired guitar hammering gives way to an overly-busy robotic trance grind. This isn’t my favourite Bowie materiel, you could say. Highly underwhelming hyper-techno. Makes Pallas Athena sound like a classic. 3.0

8. I’m Afraid of Americans: Inexplicably overrated stuttering rocker. Surprisingly co-written with Brian Eno but nowhere near as good as anything they did on Outside. A minor hit but so intoxicatingly awful with its tiresome anti-anthem clichéd chorus and obnoxious no-chord riff repeated ad-nauseum that it’s beyond ironic that it has become a live favourite. The remix by Trent Reznor was much worse. 1.0

9. Law (Earthlings on Fire): More relentless club trance muzak dressed up in the same jittery synth, looped drones, melodic vocal snippets, sound effect samples and don’t-go-there jungle beats, this is actually one of the album’s more interesting forays into techno. 3.5

ALBUM RATING: 3.5

VERDICT: Never warmed to it. A period piece that captured the mood of the contemporary pop culture but you could say that about Bowie’s whole catalogue. A collection of conventionally structured, spark-less rock songs drenched in jarring drum and bass production by Mark Plati, generally revolving around monotonous dance electronica or.. er.. jungle beats. Thankfully his beautifully matured voice injects a degree of dignity to the album and some of these songs can be enjoyed in a stripped down, unplugged format in various concert settings. This was the sound of an artistically rejuvenated and enthusiastic artist releasing a logical follow-up to the post-grunge industrial experimentation of the gothic Outside. The only snag being it is nigh on unlistenable. No doubt a spirited and courageous experiment and the sound of Bowie breaking out of his creative sinkhole, and that has to be applauded but the whole thing is let down by these things plus an overreaching ambition and a shallow alien concept, and the sleeve’s one-dimensional Earthling concept is a little tactless and the liner notes impossible to read, the materiel not to my taste. Accompanied by ever-increasing collaborator Reeves Gabrels, new comer bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey and by now mainstay Mike Garson, the most dominant musician however is the studio in an overwhelming production extravaganza creating a sound that has not aged terribly well. 
NEXT: ‘The Dreamers’ Omikron: The Nomad Soul.

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