MTV OUTSIDE REVIEW
By Robert Conroy
The metaphor of the tail wagging the dog comes to mind. At this writing, audiences across the country are being treated to the spectacle of a somewhat revitalized Thin White Duke attempting to curry favor with Trent Reznor's fans, when the major stylistic influence on Nine Inch Nails' "DOWNWARD SPIRAL" seems to be the numb synth-pop of early '80's Bowie clones like Gary Numan. Yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, nor is there a sense of justice or history in pop music--those same audiences are handing platinum status to bands that are to punk what the Stray Cats were to rockabilly.
The Bowie/NIN tour is more than pure homage; in the midst of the avalanche of fall releases, there is a new David Bowie record. "Outside" is certainly the best thing Bowie has released in about fifteen years--which isn't really a ringing commendation, considering the level of his work post '80's "Scary Monsters." But this new record is actually quite good--not great, but crammed full of interesting/arresting ideas and notions, and containing several near-great moments. "Outside" very pointedly harkens back to a time when Bowie was one of the most important, if not the most important, figures in pop music. It is difficult to convey to anyone under the age of 25 the huge, gestalt-shaping clout that this man once wielded. Suffice to say that nearly all aspects of today's "alternative" scene bear the marks of some phase of Bowie's career, either directly or via the artists/groups he championed/shamelessly borrowed from, thus exposing their work to a much larger audience. (A short list of such parties would include Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Mott the Hoople and European avant-gardesters like Kraftwerk, Can and Neu.) Creative aftershocks are still being felt from the youthquakes generated as Bowie shifted from bisexual, interstellar, glam-rock thing to plastic soul man to electronic, West Berlin-based hipster. But, by the mid-'80's, Bowie grew tired of being the world's biggest cult hero and went for the gold.
"Lets Dance" and the primarily dreadful stuff that followed left our hero wealthy, artistically hamstrung and saddled with a credibility rating--despite his back catalogue--that could only be properly measured in negative numbers.
Bowie seems now quite damned and determined to correct this situation and, on a musical front, he's doing pretty well. First of all, Brian Eno, fresh from making U2 a band you can take seriously, acts as Outside's producer/collaborator (the same post he occupied for Bowie's brilliant "Berlin trilogy": "Low," "Heroes," and "Lodger"). Once again the two assemble an ace band which includes grand pianist Mike Garson, whose wild playing style was such an integral part of earlier Bowie efforts like "Pin Ups." Sonically, much of "Outside" could be seen as a grafting together of both extremes of Mr. B.'s work in the '70's; the resulting music is a mix of surprising textures, sexy grooves, eerie, windswept melodies and Garson's purposefully theatrical piano. "A Small Plot Of Land ," "The Motel " and the LP's title track recall Bowie's pointedly "European" efforts, like the title track to "Aladdin Sane," but filtered through a fuzzy, electronic haze. The sound is dark, highly inventive and not that immediate--you have to hear "Hearts Filthy Lesson " five or six times before you realize what a great single it is. The same holds true on "Thru' These Architects Eyes " and "The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)": it takes several passes for the real strength of the material to become apparent. Even "Hallo Spaceboy ," the most obvious play here for the alternative market with its rather NIN-esque jackhammer beat, evidences little melodic flourishes that Mr. Reznor and company would have never come up with, and which make the song surprisingly tasty.
What stops this album from being a true success is not a musical misstep, but rather, quite literally, a conceptual one. For "Outside" is an example of that most dreaded of '70's hold-overs: the concept album. The first part of a new trilogy, all the songs here connect to vague narrative about a dystopian, near future where murder is the ultimate performance art and killer/artists are tracked down by detective/critics. Now, Bowie has done this type of thing before quite successfully. Both "Ziggy Stardust" and "Diamond Dogs" were concept albums, but the material on those LPs could also function divorced from the plot. As text included with the CD this stuff is sort of interesting, but "Outside" is so hooked into its narrative, its characters (who all have sort of silly names like Baby Grace Blue and Algeria Touchshriek) and Bowie's abstract take on their thoughts and motives that the whole thing begins to veer dangerously close to a cyber-punk "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR." There are short, spoken vignettes that sound more goofy than dramatic, and Bowie saddles one of the release's strongest musical tracks, the jaunty "I Have Not Been To Oxford Town ," with a lyric that is essentially just so much exposition.
In short, not an unqualified success, but, compared to "Tonight" or "Never Let Me Down," a record of near-genius.
Mr. OVAL's 1.Outside homepage
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Mr. OVAL's Home
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