4 MONTHS AGO, when Elle magazine asked David Bowie for his recommended summer listening, the singer obliged with a typically odd selection. Alongside old faves (some Tamla Motown, the Pixies LPs) and more voguish names (PJ Harvey, Glen Branca), Dave namechecked one of the weirdest records of the season - signalling his own far-out musical intentions for 1995. Bowie, you see, liked Scott Walker's 'Tilt'.
It's an understandable choice. Bowie, like Walker, got a lot of early mileage from vocal tremblings and tousled, teen-god looks. But then both decided rock'n'roll was kindergarten stuff. They got into 'difficult' singers like Jacques Brel. They 'retired' periodically. They scared off the popkids and challenged hardcore fans to follow further still.
That's the deal with 'Outside' and 'Tilt'. These records share a fondness for grand vocal arrangements, unflinching pretension and arcane themes. They feature musical passages so brazenly strange you crack up laughing. Neither LP is big on whistle-in-the-bath choruses.
'Outside' is based around a detective theme - kind of Twin Peaks relocated to New Jersey, 1999. We meet a drug-crazed teenage victim, a cult leader, some townsfolk, a murder suspect, a cop and an art-terrorist - each with a different riff and a voice supplied by Bowie's famous persona bank.
To confuse things more, Bowie alternates between flashbacks and future legends, earning this record its subtitle, 'A Non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle'. There's a similarity between 'Outside' and David's 'Diamond Dogs' album - both are set in a coming era of technological decay, populated by ever-extreme tribes. Thus, a new track, 'A Small Plot Of Land' is melancholic, like his 1974 song 'We Are The Dead'.
But while 'Diamond Dogs' was mainly a glam-synth rush, Bowie's new work mutates into hundreds of musical styles. It's a kind of career resumé - underlined by the fact that many of his old associates are back.
Brian Eno is co-producer of the record - he masses the sound- blocks like icebergs and arranges sad motifs far back in the mix. On a track like Wishful Beginnings', Eno builds on the singer's notions of introversion and collapse, a technique he also used with Bowie in the late '70s during his walled-in Berlin period. This time, however, there are some manic players involved and they cut through the techno fog with savage efficiency.
Guitarists Reeves Gabrels (Tin Machine) and Carlos Alomar (Dave's mid-'70s sidekick) strike out contrasting licks from the Bowie style-book - a cool dialogue. The other prolific name is pianist Mike Garson, who went slashing over the neurotic extremes of 'Aladdin Sane' back in 1973. He takes a similar function here, and on 'The Motel' he careers over the high notes, riding the rim of the musical scale - a great evocation of paranoia rising. Bowie holds the album concept together with his array of voices. The detective Nathan Adler reasons aloud like a Hollywood gumshoe. A toothless oldie called Touchshriek outlines his grim life, sounding (unintentionally, you guess) like the old fellow in TV's Catweazle. We hear a tape recording of the young victim. On 'Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)' Dave gibbers like a stoned teenager, a Laura Palmer of some future age wherein murders are enacted as creative blood rites and the putrefying works of Damien Hirst are held in awe.
Bowie's lyrics are hard to figure - he scrambles his phrases on computer now, rather than physically cutting and pasting - so you have to keep returning to an accompanying essay for clues. This is hardly new, but to his credit, Bowie is at least striving to add to the vision of William Burroughs and cyberpunk writers like William Gibson.
But 'Outside' doesn't shake your emotions. Manic Street Preachers' LP 'The Holy Bible' also dealt with alienation and gory, body art, yet the band translated their thoughts into disturbing, visceral music. Bowie, with the exception of a few tracks, like the industrial 'Hallo Spaceboy', sounds rather removed.
That's why you're not ultimately won over by 'Outside' At his best, Bowie could be highbrow, outrageous and pop. Now be rarely gets more than two of these elements together at once. Ironically, the tasty, allcrooning finale, 'Strangers When We Meet ' , is actually a left-over from Dave's last soundtrack, 'The Buddha Of Suburbia '.
'Outside' bas lots in its favour. lt serves as a fascinating history of Bowie's musical past and is never lazy. Students will be writing college dissertations about it very soon. But it also comes over like some contemporary arts review - savvy in the ways of the new theories, yet lacking in soul, in something actually to say about itself.
lt would be nice to have him down to earth again.
(From Vox, November 1995)
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