Back to the Future

David Bowie

One of several striking, almost iconic images that adorn the self-designed cover of David Bowie's new album, Earthling, is a "Kirlian photo" of a crucifix taken by Bowie in 1974. The Kirlian Camera is the infamous "aura camera" (featured recently on--where else--an X-Files episode) which purportedly grabs a snapshot of the energy emitting from a human being or an object.

The fact that Bowie's aura-sample photo dates back to the early 1970s, the peak of his glam-rock days, is somehow fitting. Not only do many of the song structures, melodies and vocals on Earthling echo Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, but a good deal of his 30-year-plus career is evoked during the course of the album as well, from the soul of Young Americans to the "classic rock" of Let's Dance. If you think that's a weakness, then consider it a criticism of Earthling. It's one of the few you'll read here.

Now for the good stuff.
What's special about this album is its sound. Or is that sounds? Namely, the synth, electric guitar, beatbox and live, raw drum materials, with which Bowie breathes new life--no, new fire--into otherwise standard-issue Bowie tunes. You've probably heard the hype: Much of Earthling's sonic palette is borrowed from acid-techno, and many of its beats from jungle.

"Little Wonder" starts things off to a fine jungle vibe, high-pitched metallic snares and all. For the very traditional Bowie-crooned chorus, the jungle rhythms politely bow out in favor of a straightahead four-by-four rock crunch. But what really drives this song, and a good deal of the album, is the work of Bowie's close collaborator and guitarist Reeves Gabrels. This guy is all over Earthling, his knifelike, screaming guitar slashing open fissures of red-hot energy in every tune . . . with restraint. Think Joe Satriani, but with taste.

And it's not all jungle in the beat department, either. "Looking for Satellites" sports a chunky hip-hop shuffle, and "Seven Years in Tibet" goes for a smoky R&B beatbox vibe, complete with Farfisa organ swells.

At times, the Bowie trip-down-memory-lane stylings get old. "Battle for Britain" goes by the numbers from Hunky Dory balladeering to Aladdin Sane psycho-jazz. Yawn. But the band, arguably the best of his career, lifts things out of the predictable doldrums, keeping Bowie on his toes with an insistent jungle underpinning on the otherwise lackluster, mid-'80s-styled "Telling Lies" and an industrial-strength breakbeat and percolating synths on "The Last Thing You Should Do."

Bowie at 50 may be "older than movies" and "wiser than dreams," as he sings in his I-won't-go-quietly anthem "Dead Man Walking," but with Mike Garson's wicked acid synth lines behind him, on top of a solid techno beat, he gets credit for not growing old "gracefully."

The biggest lyrical punch here is paired with Bowie's craftiest self-reference. The link is to his Low/Berlin period, the sound is early '80s Kraftwerky beats of proto-techno/proto-industrial "electro," and the song is the biting, antihegemonic "I'm Afraid of Americans," penned (surprise) with Bowie's old pal Brian Eno.

Another bright flash of originality (with more early '80s electro references) is the album's closer, "Law (Earthlings on Fire)." Unfortunately, this song has been misunderstood and almost uniformly trashed by critics. The neat twist here is how the lyrics, many of them samples, build up slowly in a dense, chantlike stack over the (intentionally) cheesy electronic beat--a welcome relief from much of the album's pop-rock crooning.

Say what you will as a rock or techno "purist"; Bowie has put many of the elements of techno to good use here, in a successful attempt to update his look-to-the-past songbook. So what's the verdict? Is techno the sound of rock to come? Too soon to tell. As Yoda says in a just-released, newly retooled film we all thought was "finished" some 17 years ago, "Always in motion is the future."

And besides, "Is techno the music of the future?" is probably the wrong question to ask. Techno is the music of now, even if the best of it still resides underground. It's the freshest thing going at the end of the millennium, an art form which not only takes full advantage of our current level of technology, but also makes an attempt to answer, through rave culture, a tribal yearning for community we seem to have lost some time ago.

So it's only natural that Bowie, the inveterate cultural scribe and technological tinkerer, would exploit techno's sonic trappings and beats--and that's "exploit" in a positive way. Is Earthling the great rock/jungle crossover album? No. But through its association with the acid synths of trance and the quirky, rolling beats of jungle, not to mention the guitar genius of Gabrels, it makes some of the most original rock noise to come along in quite a while.


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