The Good: Musically interesting, Good vocals, Some intriguing lyrics
The Bad: Short, Repetitive
The Basics: David Bowie's Earthling is a darker, more intense Bowie album which provides listeners with a richer sound and murkier lyrics from the eccentric artist.
It is in reviewing Bowie's album Earthling (or rather Eart hl i ng or EART HL I NG) that I think about what I have accomplished as a reviewer in the past ten years. I have written quite a lot and truly expanded my musical horizons. But what I hope I have done for my readers, at the very least, is brought a sense of discrimination to my reviews that they might not always have encountered online. There are a lot of reviewers who only review what they like or fail to explore new things for fear that their opinion as a layperson on the subject somehow carries less weight than the "experts." For sure, there are people who know a lot more about the life and times of David Bowie and what he meant with his work than I (my wife is one). But I can listen to his songs just as well as the next person (assuming the next person isn't deaf, of course) and my ability to comment on what an artist says as opposed to what they meant is equal to the next person's and that is what reviewing is all about to me. As it is, Earthling deserves the attention of rock and roll, especially "alternative" rock fans and it is one of David Bowie's vastly overlooked albums.
With only nine songs, Earthling is one of Bowie's less-full c.d.s with 48:55 minutes of music. At least the album is almost entirely Bowie's musical vision. He wrote all of the lyrics and co-wrote or wrote all of the music to accompany it. He provides the lead vocals as he always does. As well, he plays guitar, keyboards, and alto saxophone on Earthling and he was responsible for selecting many of the samples used as well. Finally, he produced or co-produced the album (the liner notes are chaotic, in fitting with the rest of the album, making it hard to discern just what words go in what order in some places). It does appear, though he has at least four supporting performers, that this is definitely David Bowie's musical vision being presented on the album.
And what a vision it is! For those who think that Bowie's career expired somewhere in the mid-1980s, Earthling stands as a testament to the pioneering spirit of artist David Bowie. Released in the post-grunge period when Industrial music was fading, Bowie released an album that illustrated an affinity for experimentation in both of those genres. Bowie adds samples, has more intense guitars (as on "Seven Years In Tibet") and utilizes some riffs from Industrial sources that add a depth to Bowie's works that his '80's works often lacked.
Strangely, outside "I'm Afraid Of Americans," despite the heavier bass, pounding drums and sampled noises, Earthling is hardly a darker album. Bowie might be thematically darker on "Dead Man Walking," but he couches it in a dance beat that makes it hard to feel all that bad for the musical protagonist. Instead, this album is mostly just strange in the best possible way; uncommon and intense.
Earthling features Bowie's voice alternating between smooth and natural ("Little Wonder") and intensely produced ("Looking For Satellites," where it is almost an echo of Bowie's natural voice). He downright yells on "I'm Afraid Of Americans" and there are points on "Telling Lies" where the synths drown out his mechanized vocals. Instead of being problematic, this shakes up the usual Bowie formula pretty well. Rather than sounding lazy, even today it sounds experimental and the added production to the vocals serves the overall murky mood of the album better.
The only place the vocals fall down is where the production and instrumentation interfere with the actual comprehension of the lyrics. For example, on "Telling Lies," it is almost impossible to understand Bowie when he sings "Shadow falls in shrinking smiles / See me poised at the happy games / Standing in the mouth of all that's pure / Come straggling in your tattered remnants / You'll come to me in tears and rain / I'm your future, / I'm tomorrow, I'm the end." Clearly Bowie has something to say and why he obscures his message with the guitars, synths and production of the vocals is a bit of a mystery. Still, even that song sounds good.
I have often said that I would stop recommending albums where the best tracks on the album are on the "best of" compilations. Fortunately, this is not the case with Earthling. While "I'm Afraid Of Americans" and "Dead Man Walking" are on the more advanced compilations of Bowie's works, none that I have yet found contain "Looking For Satellites." "Looking For Satellites" is a beautifully obtuse poetic song that is presented in a murky fashion that sounds wonderful. In fact, it makes little difference how Bowie sings the list "Where do we go from here? / There's something in the sky / Shining in the light / Spinning and far away / Nowhere, Shampoo, TV, Combat, Boy's own / Slim tie, Showdown, Can't stop, (Satellite)" ("Looking For Satellites"), it is no more comprehensible when read than heard! Still, it is poetic and sometimes appreciating the sound of language can be as worthwhile as penning something that means something (of course the lyrics mean something, but one has to truly dig in this case!).
The real lyrical strike against Bowie on Earthling is the repetitive nature of so many of the songs. While the album has a couple long tracks like "Seven Years In Tibet," "Dead Man Walking" and "The Last Thing You Should Do," few of them use their length as poorly as the opening track. Bowie repeats "Little wonder then, little wonder / You little wonder, / Little wonder you. . ." ("Little Wonder") far too many times to even be considered engaging with the song. Instead, it is repetitive and wears thin, so much so that by the time I reached my eighth listen to the album I was happy with the idea of never having to hear that track again.
On Earthling, Bowie is experimental and he creates rock music on the fringe of the mainstream. It has a heavier sound which is the antithesis of anthemic. Those looking for something poppy like his '80's stuff will be in for a real shock. Those looking for something deeper will find a lot to love.
The best track is "Seven Years In Tibet" (though every time I hear "Looking For Satellites," I give it my full attention and enjoy it). The low point is the repetitive "Little Wonder."
For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Christiane F. Soundtrack
Best Of Bowie (1 Disc version)
The Best Of Bowie (2 Disc version)
For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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