DAVID BOWIE’S death in January triggered a frenzy of obituaries, programme specials and lists of what critics regarded as the Englishman’s finest works.
The universal feeling was that his albums from the 1970s were the standouts. I agree to this to an extent – the Berlin trilogy was Bowie at his pioneering peak and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust is his magnus opus, despite all its flaws.
But I was piqued at the neglect from virtually anything post Let’s Dance. One self-confessed fan’s list of top ten albums stopped at 1980’s Scary Monsters, Scary Creeps. I found this incredible given early works like Hunky Dory show Bowie still in his formative stage as a serious artist.
One album I have included in my own top 10 (see below) is 1997’s Earthling. It arrived two years after 1.Outside, the industrial, edgy, album that was another 360 degree turn in Bowie’s output, dramatic turns that he so comfortably did during his career.
And, yet, it is also close to the aforementioned Scary Monsters, which was a more aggressive work that the three previous Eno-tinged masterpieces.
At the time of Earthling’s release I was initially put off by the suggestions it was Bowie’s “jungle” or drum’n’bass album. My first listen didn’t dispel those opinions but I was soon hooked on the electrifying basslines and Bowie’s most passionate writing for a few years.
It kicks off with Little Wonder, which is massively bombastic, borderline radio friendly – its overt use of drum’n’bass laying down a challenge to breakfast DJs to even listen to it. As for the lyrics … well … “sneeky Bhutan” mingles with “Mars happy nation” and “Big screen dolls, tits and explosions,” in what seems almost a stream of consciousness.
If that’s what I was anticipating as those initial third party impressions seeped through my mind, Dead Man Walking pounded them like a hammer on the anvil. If Bowie had listened to The Prodigy in the mid-90s this is how it came out. All that’s lacking is some misogynistic controversy.
Battle for Britain (The Letter) contains a tumultuous opening riff that sounds not unlike a Nine Inch Nails B-side (clearly an influence). It’s a colossal song that veers fantastically in all directions, with a surprising jazz piano break at about three minutes in and intermittent warped vocals.
Then there’s a song almost beyond comprehension, The Last Thing You Should Do, which begins as a possible outtake from 1993’s White Tie, Black Noise before a minute and a half in comes some ear-splitting guitars (Reznor-ish again) that pummel onwards before those deft melodies cooked in grease come to the fore.
I’m Afraid of Americans, is, meanwhile, one of the more straightforward tracks, boom then bang, and repeat ad nauseum in a diatribe on the failed American Dream.
There’s a couple of fillers and the final track, Law (Earthlings On Fire) should’ve been left off but this is more than compensated by the flurry of gloriously in-yer-face tracks that once more put Bowie on a track of his own liking. Alas, he followed this up with the moribund …. Hours and the train was derailed.
And for it’s worth, here’s my own top 10 of Bowie albums:
- The Next Day
- Station To Station
- Diamond Dogs
- Ziggy Stardust