David Bowie’s 1997 album Earthling was the first new Bowie record I was aware of as a teenager. I already knew songs like Space Oddity & Ashes To Ashes, & even liked what I knew, but Earthling was essentially my generation’s Bowie album.
Bowie, finger ever on the pulse of the zeitgeist, was inspired by emergent genres like Drum & Bass, IDM & Breakbeat. Earthling was written & produced with these influences at the fore. Everything could have gone so horribly wrong. Many other classic artists who embrace genres of younger generations fail miserably (in my opinion), take Neil Youngs synthetic experiments in the ’80’s for example.
Luckily, Bowie was able to understand & appreciate what it was about these genres that made them special & unique. Instead of bending the technology & techniques used to create Drum & Bass to match his songwriting, he bent his songwriting to match the technology.
Album opener & lead single, Little Wonder, is a great example of this. A thumping, Junglist, Drum & Bass beat underpins trademark. His incredible vocal melodies floating above the hard, Junglist beats. In line with a key influence at for Bowie at the time, The Prodigy, Little Wonder’s skittering breakbeat manglement gives way to headbanging, anthemic hard rock sections.
Elsewhere, other influences come to the fore. Looking For Satellites is heavy downtempo breakbeats, somewhere between Hip Hop & Trip Hop (Meat Beat Manifesto?), but with rhythmic vocal melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a Talking Heads record.
Prodigy vibes abound on Battle For Britain (The Letter). Crunchy, digitally harsh guitar chords juxtaposed against similar Junglist rhythms to Little Wonder. Bowies trademark melodic melancholia & a space rock glueing the whole thing together. Free jazz piano segments notwithstanding.
Seven Years In Tibet brings us more downtempo drum machine shenanigans, with heavy, metallic guitar riffing. This is more in Nine Inch Nails’ sonic territory than Prodigy though.
Dead Man Walking sees modem noise distorted guitars over thumping four-to-the-floor beats. Techno synth arpeggios & harmonic vocal loops give this a distinctly ’90’s vibe to it. Perhaps reminds me a little of Björk’s Hyper-Ballad. I could easily imagine a successful mix of the two songs in the hands of a competent DJ.
Telling Lies sees the return of the Drum & Bass rhythms. Lowkey baritone Bowie vocals & incoherent moaning help to build an oppressive sonic atmosphere.
The Last Thing You Should Do is upbeat, cut-&-Paste breakbeat with melancholic, subdued verses & explosive, distorted choruses. Like The Chemical Brothers with a more experimental sensibility. Grunge dynamics feel strangely at home here.
I’m Afraid Of Americans is more downtempo, industrial influenced darkness. Wears it’s Nine Inch Nails influence proudly on its sleeve. Doubly so on the various Nine Inch Nails Remixes which were also made, Trent Reznor’s unique production style bringing out Bowie’s darkest artistic impulses. You’ve got to hand it to Reznor. Not only did he do a great job of this, but he did it from the position of being completely starstruck & in awe of Bowie.
Finale, Law (Earthlings On Fire) is another dive into the sonic textures of Techno. Four-to-the-floor drums, bubbling, sidechained bass lines & stabs of distorted noise. Vocals mimic the rhythms brilliantly, acting as just another instrument in the soundscape.
I forgot how much I loved this album & I’m glad I was reminded of it by a post on Facebook earlier this week. One of Bowies darkest, & most sonically adventurous, albums, Earthling still sounds incredibly contemporary today, 23 years after its release.
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