Leave it to David Bowie to wrap a perfectly tongue-in-cheek idea in populist medium and make a celebration of it. That is, of course, precisely what the singer has done in licensing Earthling for a fresh vinyl pressing now, almost twenty years after the album was originally released.
Confused reader? Let me clarify it for you: when Earthling was first released in 1997, much ado was made about how the music was recorded as well as the equipment which was employed to both make as well as capture the sound. Earthling was the first David Bowie album to be recorded completely digitally. In addition, many of the different instrumental parts and samples were filtered through digital processors [some fans may remember the amplifier Reeves Gabrels utilized on stage at the time which resembled a dishwasher but made some of the most unearthly sounds anyone had ever heard –ed] and were then assembled in a manner intended to resemble the Drum And Bass sounds and arrangements which had captured Bowie’s attention and imagination at the time. In effect, Bowie deconstructed both rock and electronic pop music (drum and bass, electronica) – took the sounds right down to foundations – and then rebuilt a single structure with all the pieces included equally. There are elements of analogue sounds and real-time instruments laced throughout Earthling‘s run-time, but the songs would not be able to support themselves or hold together without the electronic aspects in them included too; each song is a symbiotic arrangement of “electric,” “electronic” and “acoustic” parts – each song needs all of them in order to function. That symbiosis continues now too; that such an experiment has been re-pressed on vinyl has to have been intended as an unspoken joke. How could it not be? An album which was made in a completely digital manner is now available on vinyl – the archetypal analogue medium? Someone somewhere has to be giggling themselves into a frenzy over this one.
While the spirit of the release itself may have a lighthearted angle about it, the music on Earthling is no laughing matter. From the moment that the jarring, three-note riff (which are all different octaves of an E, passed through a multitude of digital processors) kicks open the doors of “Little Wonder” to open the album, listeners will have no trouble differentiating what they’re hearing from everything else they’ve ever heard from David Bowie before. Right away, listeners will find themselves soaked in electronic trappings; accelerated drum samples, bass cannon explosions and Reeves Gabrels’ riff are the first things listeners hear, and the assemblage is completely unlike everything else which existed on the pop spectrum. True, it was similar to about a half a dozen other pop forms at the time, but the same as none; it was as alien as Ziggy Stardust came off in the Seventies but, unlike that character, it remains so now. That might sound unnerving, but conventional syntax does not do the intrigue that “Little Wonder” inspires justice; the song straddles lines between jarring (Gabrels’ guitar riff) and soul-sustaining (Mike Garson’s piano playing is inspiring), propulsive (Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass WILL move you), energizing and gorgeous when all of the sonic variables come together. It’s remarkable – and those sounds elevate vocal performance too. While the song’s lyric sheet is basically meaningless (the singer himself has confessed that, initially, he was just writing lines with the names of the Seven Dwarfs in them and, when he ran out of names, he began creating more – like “Stinky”), its placement and alignment in the mix strikes a balance between form and style which makes it feel anthemic. True, the fact is that “Little Wonder” is lyrically soft but it flat-out shines when one just takes it for the completely unique composition it is
With the album opened and some of the basic principles for it laid out by “Little Wonder,” Earthling takes a mile from that first inch and really shows listeners how far genre cross-pollination can be taken, beginning with “Looking For Satellites.” There, Bowie and his band set a great counterpoint to the ‘impressions of Drum and Bass’ sounds of “Little Wonder” as they simultaneously downshift, find a sort of off-center reggae rhythm and see just how far they can stretch and contort the new ideas they’re playing with. The answer proves to be pretty impressive too; here, Bowie himself splits his time between a reggae chant and some startlingly dark sentiments (check out lines like “Where do we go from here?/ There’s something in the sky/ shining in the light/ Spinning and far away,” and the paranoia in the tone used to deliver them) which still somehow manages to sound uplifting – a sensation that Reeves Gabrels’ solo upholds as well.
…And what an event that solo is. According to several sources, when it came time to record the solo for “Looking For Satellites,” Bowie told Reeves Gabrels to only play on one string at a time. “He was hemmed in by the chord and couldn’t change strings until it changed, and that made his run-up most unorthodox.”
Indeed, there is a tension in the way the solo must play, but the release which comes when Gabrels is finally turned off the leash is awesome. When that happens, he’s just off into the stratosphere; while Bowie made his name as a space-going entity, Gabrels really does sound as though he’s gone into space or oblivion and that has simply never been articulated so compellingly before in an instrumental manner.
After “Looking For Satellites,” the A-side of Earthling has already well and truly presented Bowie in an all-new and completely fully-formed persona, and color and detail follow. It does need to be conceded that “Battle For Britain (The Letter)” represents the single straightest and most direct attempt at a drum and bass song on Earthling but, unfortunately, it’s also the most forgettable; there, the beat and added samples added by producer Mark Plati obscure a song which also happens to suffer from a fairly milquetoast melody, and the only truly redeeming feature is Garson’s angular and jazzy piano performance in the bridge.
Yes, “Battle For Britain” is definitely a weak link in the chain on the A-side of Earthling but, happily, “Seven Years In Tibet” isn’t and closes out the side on the strongest possible note.
To this day – eighteen years after its original release – “Seven Years In Tibet” still plays like a readily accessible, wholly disquieting moment on Earthling (which, as we’ve established, was a unique kind of record already) and appears that way from the moment the sturdy, spare, programmed beat opens the song. Everywhere else on Earthling, the beats are busy and so “Seven Years In Tibet” immediately stands out and generates notice because it is the exception to the rule. Listeners will find they’re further enticed when the desperate, minor-key rhythm figure presented by Gabrels snakes its way in and Bowie appears in an uncharacteristically muted tone with the words, “’Are you okay?/ You’ve been shot in the head/ And I’m holding your brains’/ The old woman said/ So I drink in the shadows/ Of an evening sky/ See nothing at all.”
Bowie’s words at the beginning of “Seven Years In Tibet” can throw a chill up he spine of even the steadiest listener, but when Reeves Gabrels throws the distortion on his Parker Fly for the first (wordless) run of the chorus, the sudden shot of volume threatens to snap weak necks like twigs. The sudden explosion of volume and heavy-handed power is shocking but, as soon as the chorus is over, the distortion and volume evaporate and Gabrels goes back to his minor-key progression. It’s an incredibly violent attack as far as how the dynamics of it shift, but the surprise here is that the dynamics force listeners to perceive the quieter parts of the song differently; after the first explosion, the reversion to a lower volume feels almost like a sardonic move to pull listeners back in again, only to assault them some more when the chorus returns and the volume goes back up. There is a truly sinister element about how the song functions and, because “Seven Years In Tibet” is the final song on the side, there’s a tease about the way it methodically makes its way out which will inspire some listeners to come right along – even if it is for some more of the same kind of sweet abuse.
It ISN’T the same kind of sweet abuse though. In fact, the B-side of Earthling is a very different kind of beast; the A-side made many of the breakthroughs required for Bowie to present a different sound, and the B-side seeks to show listeners how well it can stand without simply being “the new idea by David Bowie for 1997.” To that end, both “Dead Man Walking” and “The Last Thing You Should Do” establish the new working paradigm by standing on familiar ideas; “Dead Man Walking” lifts the guitar lick from “Starman,” refurbishes it for fresh service and recontextualizes it as the key sample which drives the song as well as being its keystone, while “The Lst Thing You Should Do” keeps an eye on the melodic reach of the Berlin trilogy, but updates those ideas for use in a post-punk, new electro- context. Between those two songs, listeners have all the proof at how fertile the ground that Bowie and his band are treading upon could be – but then the singer pushes still further and incorporates the elements of goth that Outside toyed with and refreshes one of the songs that Bowie contributed to the Showgirls soundtrack (“I’m Afraid of The Animals”) for “I’m Afraid Of Americans”
While it was intentional or not, “I’m Afraid Of Americans” ended up being the song which introduced David Bowie to a whole new crew of potential fans – those who may not have been interested in “classic rock,” but who got into Bowie with the help of Trent Reznor – who not only did a remix of “I’m Afraid Of Americans” but also appeared in the music video for the song.
Ignoring the “walk on” star power in the video (Reznor spends the entire video stalking Bowie), “I’m Afraid Of Americans” remains unique among th Earthling tracks because, where the others have the capacity for explosion, this one always either seethes or percolates to make its point. Bizarre little samples chime in unexpectedly as the synth and percussion lines open the song which offers a bit of rapt menace to it, but the lyrics almost inspire the idea that the singer may have some social commentary to offer as he near-whispers “Johnny’s in America/ No tricks at the wheel/ No one needs anyone/ They don’t even just pretend” between the emergence of a stuttered sample but, in fact, the whole idea is just to set up the explosive chorus where Bowie blurts out an acerbic confession of fear – over a decade before September eleventh, when such sentiments would be deserved.
That same kind of “here is no why” energy propels “LAW (Earthlings On Fire),” which closes the album. There, the destructive tone implied by “I’m Afraid Of Americans” is fully realized as Bowie barks proclamations like “I don’t want knowledge! I want certainty,” and couples them with repetitive chants like “With the sound, with the sound/ With the sound of the ground/ Sure I get a little bit afraid, sometimes” – the results are unnerving and imply images of the end of the world which are backed up by the molten rhythms set up by Reeves Gabrells and drummer Zack Alford. In the end, as “LAW” sputters down, no one is surprised that Earthling is coming to a close; there’s nowhere left for the album to go, and “LAW” successfully represents the completion of the thought that Bowie sought to present: it is new and it is cutting edge, but it does not have any underlying plotline or dystopian aspirations – it is simply a collection of great songs which do have a theme, but each can stand easily on their own.
…And that’s how it ws released in 1997. Of course, some of what Earthling represented was met with resistance by Bowie’s fans (to this day, Earthling still has a significant number of critics), and that may be why, outside of a couple of songs which appeared on Hours… (see “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell)” and Reality (see “New Killer Star”), the singer didn’t really further explore these ideas. Even so though, Earthling does have its league of supporters, and they’ll be the ones who rabidly seek this new release – pressed into a single plate of translucent green vinyl – out for themselves. The new mix on this presentation has been smoothed down a bit (the electronic parts which originally stuck out of the mix a bit and created little barbs on which listeners could be caught), which means the slightly garish air of the album isn’t so perfectly self-evident but, it doesn’t exactly take away from the experience. Rather, while there is definitely something to be said for the original CD presentation of Earthling, this vinyl does the music on it the service of presenting a slightly finer (although maybe not truer) presentation of the music; existing fans will find they’re delving deeply into these songs again to relish in the pristine tones of the remaster, and new fans could be won by this excellent curiosity as well. All around, the Black Friday reissue of Earthling features fine music which can once again revive its role as a conversation piece, and simply absorb listeners of the right mind on the right day.
(ISO/Columbia/Sony Music/Friday Music)
Ground Control Magazine – David Bowie – Earthling – [The Classics 010] groundcontrolmag.com/detail/9/3303/12
The Black Friday 2015 reissue of Earthling by David Bowie is out now, in limited numbers. Find one at your local independent record store!