Albums Revisited: David Bowie’s ‘Earthling’ Turns 20: a look back at Bowie’s underrated electronica excursion on its 20th anniversary.
While the late David Bowie is celebrated as a groundbreaking icon, whose strokes of genius stretched far and wide, his 90’s output remains the most underrated and least celebrated work in his catalogue. And while his experimental, 1995 industrial/techno opus Outside has been re-embraced over the years, his follow-up, 1997’s drum and bass fueled Earthling hasn’t received its full due.
The album, which celebrates its 20thanniversary on February 3rd saw Bowie continuing his investigation into electronica, finding a rejuvenating energy in the spastic fury of D&B’s skittering, hyperactive rhythms.
The first single Little Wonder, was also the first song recorded for the album, the result of a happy accident when bassist Gail Anne Dorsey was recorded futzing with her pedalboard. Bowie would later joke that the song’s lyrics were a silly stream of consciousness: “I just picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and made a line for each of the dwarves’ names. And that’s the song [laughs]. And then I ran out of dwarves’ names, so there’s new dwarves in it like ‘Stinky’.
What makes Earthling such a dynamic affair is that for all the techno bells and whistles, its grounded in organic musicianship. Even the drum loops came from physical performance: “Unlike most drum and bass things, we didn’t just take parts from other people’s records and sample them” Bowie said in a Seattle Times interview–“On the snare drum stuff, Zac [Alford] went away and did his own loops…we speeded those up to your regular 160 beats per minute…we kept all sampling in-house and created our own soundscape in a way.”
Bowie’s mad scientist guitarist Reeves Gabrels was a key player throughout. Bowie devised interesting strategies for his cohort, like directing him to play only one string at a time on the keening, dizzy Looking For Satellites.
But Gabrels’ really shines on the propulsive, anthemic Dead Man Walking, with a metallic riff that cuts through the mix like a buzzsaw.
The one song that did gain mainstream success was I’m Afraid of Americans, an unused track from the Outside sessions. Featuring a pulsating synth hook and Bowie at his most paranoid, it’s a slithering composition that’s his most dance floor friendly entry since his 80’s output.
While the song seems to capture a sense of unease with his adopted country, it wasn’t written as a condemnation of trigger happy yanks and bullying foreign policy, but America’s capitalist expansion across the globe, as he discussed in a press release: “It’s not as truly hostile about Americans as say “Born in the U.S.A.”: it’s merely sardonic. I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake.”
“The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.“
Likewise Battle For Britain (The Letter) expressed his disconnection from his homeland, despite the influence of Britpop and UK driven electronica on his work.
1997 was a big year for Bowie. He turned 50, and celebrated with an epic concert featuring a host of alternative rock all-stars: Robert Smith, Frank Black, Billy Corgan, Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters along with his longtime compatriot Lou Reed (I should note that the birthday concert was the only thing I ever bought on PPV. Totally worth it).
But the inclusion of contemporary artists illustrated the type of vampiric rejuvenation Bowie gained from youth culture, shown in his mid-90’s tour with Nine Inch Nails. It was a wonderful sense of reciprocity given his staunch influence upon alternative rock luminaries.
Earthling isn’t the most enduring effort from Bowie, and its trendy electronic window dressing may sound dated, but the compositions hold up. They’re full of life, mixing his sense of cosmic grandeur and gritty contemporary spirit. And for anglophile nerds like myself who were soaking up every electronica project they could listen to in the 90’s it satisfied while expanding the genre.
The title says it all: grounded, yet aware of the vast universe around him. The Starman had to fall to Earth every now and then to recharge his batteries.
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