David Bowie released the album Earthling back in 1997 and, although it wasn’t too big of a hit in terms of sales, it was critically well received.
Let’s see if it’s dated well.
The opening song is “Little Wonder” and it was the second single to be released from the album. In fact, it did better than any of the songs on Earthling reaching number 14 in the charts. The track kicks off with a disjointed garage beat which comes and goes. The whole thing is best described as playful experimental Brit Pop with a catchy hook buried in a sea of conflicting rhythms and Snow White references. It is followed by “Looking For Satellites”, which also has a clubby vibe and sounds a bit like something Blur and Oasis would have cooked up together if they had gotten along.
“Battle For Britain (The Letter)” is next and you can expect more of that garage beat and some grungy guitar work from Reeves Gabrels. It’s another track which purposely goes all over the place, even jumping headfirst into random piano solos near the end. Clearly Bowie was having fun playing around with remixes in this album.
“Seven Years In Tibet” is a slower track and it’s also the last one to be released as a single. There’s a regular core beat to the song with increasingly elaborate effects and instruments backing it. The chorus is simply fantastic with the guitar kicking in and turning the song into a rocky anthem. You get the feeling that the band TV On The Radio were influenced greatly by this one.
“Dead Man Walking” is another erratic dancy single you could probably find in quite a few clubs in the late 90’s but this one has a much more Bowie vibe, at least in terms of melody. It was used in the film The Saint and includes a guitar riff once used in Supermen which was taught to Bowie by Jimmy Page. Far prefer the terrific acoustic version to this one, personally.
“Telling Lies” opens with whispers floating over a repeating garage beat. It’s a very layered track as Bowie accuses using the song’s title both in real time and in slow-mo and the whole thing speeds up and slows down at unexpected times. The chorus is the most accessible part of this one, which is another experimental exercise in controlled messiness. As is its follow-up “The Last Thing You Should Do”, which also goes all over the place. At this point, the album has become basically impenetrable and it couldn’t care less: it’s having too good a time.
“I’m Afraid Of Americans” is much more involving in that it’s got a more interesting rhythm to hang onto and the hook kicks in early. The track was co-written by Brian Eno and it’s surprising it wasn’t released as a single since it’s got loads of attitude and a raw energy to it which would have played well on the radio despite its not-so-pro-US lyrics.
“Law (Earthlings On Fire)” is the final track on the album and it’s a dancy one with distorted voices, melodies popping in and out and a purely electronic structure. It’s a far more enjoyable clubby tune than some of the others on Earthling as it keeps throwing musically interesting little bits and bobs throughout.
What to make of Earthling, then?
Here’s one album which should divide David Bowie fans completely. Earthling really is the artist going for something radically different, tackling new remixing techniques and jumping into a Brit Pop techno vibe completely. The good news is this makes for some truly wacky songs full of creativity, the bad news is it’s a little too hard to pierce through the wall of eclectic beats and distortions to enjoy Earthling as an album rather than just a curious piece of late 90’s frenzy. Those who enjoy club music should have a ball with this one but others will probably be turned off by the album early on.
That’s only 2 Ziggies out of 5 for Earthling, mostly because it just doesn’t sound quite Bowie enough making it a much less likeable outing than any of its successors.
Still cool to see the man tackle yet another musical style altogether and keeping up with the times, though. Plus the cover art for the album is one of my personal favourites.