Story goes I was bored during lockdown. I know, shocking. I needed something new to listen to in order to pass the time. After careful thinking I decided to step away from my usual hunting grounds of good ol’ fashioned Britpop and try out some David Bowie. But then I was confronted with the one question you must ask yourself when you are diving into a discography as rich and expansive as his: Where do you start? The man released nearly 30 studio albums for crying out loud, you could jump out of a helicopter into a collection of his records and be softly cushioned by the pile. In the end I had to resort to asking a crowd of people in a Discord server I’m part of where to go, specifying that I wanted to go for one of the lesser appreciated or disregarded efforts; frankly there isn’t much point in writing about Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or Hunky Dory, that’s all been done to death and I’d more than likely just end up gushing over them. Eventually the choices came down to Scary Monsters, Earthling and Hours. In the end I settled on Earthling which from what I’ve gathered is one of the more experimental albums in Bowie’s catalogue. Interesting times ahead.
Track #1 – Little Wonder
Well. That was a wake up call. Upon starting we are greeted by a very 90s drum and bass cum Prodigy sound that uncomfortably melds with the classic Bowie voice and piano. When I actually heard that drum sample for the first time I thought I was listening to a remixed version of the theme from Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Not entirely what I was expecting. It’s a bit of a mess if I’m being honest, with the drum loops and the shrieky guitars and…train noises? I do like the left turn it seems to take around four minutes in with Bowie repeating ‘So far away’ but apart from that, not a fan. Music video is a fascinating piece of work though.
Track #2 – Looking for Satellites
Once again, messy. It feels like Bowie and co. produced a bunch of noises and sounds that only barely manage to mesh together to create something resembling a song. It’s very trippy and a good example of post rock but I feel like it’s trying a bit too hard. Having said that though, I do love that guitar riff.
Track #3 – Battle For Britain (The Letter)
I feel like this is the first song on this album where Bowie himself really resonates, the previous two having been dominated by the music. I guess that means either I’m getting used to the sound of Earthling or this is a better song. Probably both. It still has yet to get me in the mood though, there’s something about this album that just isn’t connecting with me. Perhaps I’m just not a big fan of the spikier drum and bass genre, or maybe this album so far just feels like David Bowie having a ‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ moment. Either way, I’m going along with proceedings but only tentatively.
Track #4 – Seven Years in Tibet
The creeping start with the electronic beat is a refreshing change of pace from how in your face affairs have been so far. Then we get some compressed lyrics followed by another decent guitar riff that makes me wonder if we’re listening to one of the lo-fi efforts of Blur’s self-titled album. However, I like that album and I actually really like this song. It definitely benefits from the slower tempo; the instruments feel less clumped together and have room to express themselves, and there’s an undercurrent of the plastic soul from Young Americans hiding just under the surface. Definitely the highlight of the album so far as we approach the halfway stage.
Track #5 – Dead Man Walking
Disregard that last sentence. This is the highlight of the album so far. I think at this point I have adjusted to the sound of Earthling and am really starting to enjoy myself now. While this is definitely the most 90s sounding song since Little Wonder and seems designed to be a club anthem, it benefits from what is undoubtedly Bowie’s best performance up to this point. Little wonder (Sorry, couldn’t resist) that this got him nominated for a Best Male Performance Grammy. Ok, if the Simpsons have taught me anything it’s that Grammys mean next to nothing but hey, award nominations are award nominations, right? Anyway, yes, love it, and at a 7 and a bit minute runtime it definitely doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Track #6 – Telling Lies
Quite an interesting choice for a lead single. I suppose it was probably the best candidate to give the audience a taste of what was to come, not going too heavy handed into the industrial electronica of Earthling. It’s more enigmatic and evokes curiosity, mostly because of the narrator who Bowie gives a voice too. Looking through those lyrics I’m not sure if it’s God per se but definitely someone who thinks he is. Bond villain maybe? It’s also worth talking about the release of the single, one of the more unique ways of doing things back in 1996. It was done via the Internet along with a Q&A webchat with three David Bowies; one was real, the other two were pretending to be him, and it was up to the participants to guess who was the real deal and who was telling lies. The full transcript is available to read if you’re interested: (http://www.bowiewonderworld.com/chats/dbchat0996.htm)
Track #7 – The Last Thing You Should Do
A very electronic-dominated song that honestly evoked memories of Ridge Racer Type 4 (See here: https://asideglance.com/2020/12/07/entry-13-sampling-soundtracks-i-ridge-racer-type-4-a-k-a-hey-its-a-new-record/). It feels like a song you can race to, and the crescendo in the middle really gets the blood pumping. However, with Bowie repeating the same lines of verse over and over again, you start to pay more attention to the music and realise there is something rather unnerving in its sound. Danger-ish. Combined with the title of the song it indicates something very bad has happened or is happening. A drug trip perhaps? As delightfully eerie as it is though, the end of the song kind of spoils things with how abrupt it is. I’d be fine with it if the very last sound you hear didn’t sound like a fart. The last thing you should do is end with that kind of sound.
Track #8 – I’m Afraid of Americans
As one of the more talked about singles from this album, I was rather looking forward to this song. It’s got a very similar tone to the previous one, albeit leaning towards outright scariness rather than putting you off-ease. The constant repetition of the lines once again combined with the loud noise and messiness that harks back to the beginning creates a feeling of madness from the narrator. That repetition also creates one of the less subtle subject matters found on Earthling; the anti-Americanisation sentiment in the lyrics. It feels very much like a song lifted from the post-World War II era, dropped into the 90s and bathed in industrial rock. And considering recent events, I’d say that this song has aged rather well, which is unfortunate. A little bit of a step down from the last few songs but I’ll put that down to having the bar raised by the aforementioned expectations I had before booting this track up.
Track #9 – Law (Earthlings on Fire)
And so we end with another song that sounds like it was born to be a dancefloor anthem. Not much to say about it honestly, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say that I think this was based of Bowie’s fears from the time of how big the Internet was going to grow. In which case this is the most well-aged track on the album, even moreso than I’m Afraid of Americans. Did David have a crystal ball to hand when he was busy finishing off this album? As the finale this is of course where Earthling’s main influences of the Prodigy and Underworld really come together. Very much the lovechild of those two musical styles. A serviceable end.
It took a while for Earthling to get going but once it did it won me over. The first third is a bit of a slog but once you reach Seven Years in Tibet you’re set for a half hour of great music. I guess my main takeaway from this is that don’t go in with expectations on this one, especially if those expectations include a ‘classic’ Bowie sound. Otherwise you’re just going to end up shocked and disappointed. Or then again, do. With a bit of patience you can adjust to it like I did.
I do think that this album really fits the post-80s mantra David Bowie had, that he would only be making music for himself rather than the audience after he ‘sold out’ with records like Tonight, Let’s Dance and…the other one, the crap one. Not the most accessible album ever made, rather dated considering drum and bass is a much more niche genre these days, and definitely not quintessential Bowie, but I’d say it’s worth at least a curious peek. If none of the songs on their own are your cup of tea then maybe it would be worth checking out the remixes.
Because good tapdancing Christ, there are a LOT of remixes…