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Bowie's new slant in Outside is dark, messy failure

Outside

David Bowie.

Virgin Records.

Original Soundtracks I.

Passengers.

Island Records.

By Scott C. Deskin
Chairman

If you take a look at the course of popular music since 1970, a distressing trend emerges: pop musicians turned superstars in the advent of arena rock are eventually brought to their knees by creative roadblocks and the insurgence of punk rock; then, when punk rock failed, these musicians adopted the sounds of disco and new wave in the 80s, only to be relegated to bland, expertly-crafted, easy listening tunes for the 90s.

David Bowie is an artist who has changed with the times to reflect his own commercial tastes: astute observer of youth culture in "Changes" and Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes"; androgynous alien glam-rock star in the epochal Ziggy Stardust album; and the emotionally austere "Thin White Duke" of Station to Station. But before he began his conquest of the pop charts in the early 80s with Let's Dance, he made three albums with studio wizard and erstwhile Roxy Music member Brian Eno, the founder of so-called "ambient" (background, mostly instrumental) music. Although Low, "Heroes" and Lodger were experimental with ambient textures and weren't terribly memorable for yielding any hits, they were bold statements in the face of groups like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, who made no secret that they despised Bowie's courtship of critics and musical aesthetes.

Now, Bowie's career is moribund: his comeback attempts with his band Tin Machine failed to catch on, and his last album, Black Tie White Noise, barely sold at all. With the new album Outside, he gives his career a jump start with help from Eno (who during the 80s gained a reputation for producing groups like U2). Their new collaboration, along with Bowie's recent tour with Nine Inch Nails, signifies Bowie's commitment to harder-edged rock, as well as seeking a new audience that may represent a way out of classic rock exile.

Most of the songs on Outside work on an individual basis. As the lead single, "The Hearts Filthy Lesson" got the most airplay and is the most compelling - it's a triumph of multi-layered rhythm tracks and distorted instrumental effects that's easily his bleakest, yet catchiest, song since "Suffragette City" (from Ziggy Stardust). "We Prick You" and "I'm Deranged" further complicate the artist's dilemma as both instigator and victim of technological desensitization and moral decay; the drumming puts these songs into hyperdrive, and Bowie's vocal delivery alternates between nonchalant and mechanically insistent. As long as you don't pay too much attention, the lyrics have a fuzzy coherence of there own, although the lyrics "Research has pierced all extremes of my sex / Call it a day," from "The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)," is a bit cryptic.

These songs all tie into Bowie's master concept for the album: a futuristic detective story that involves a series of art-crimes (i.e., ritual murders for the sake of art), dirty underworld dealings, excessive body piercing, and so on. The story that is outlined in the notes for the album is confusing and some of the pictures are quite graphic - with blood spattered pages, no less. The lyrics are printed, albeit in an erratic and nearly illegible fashion, but the lyrics don't seem to be the main focus here. Bowie's focus is on the music itself, and it works some of the time; but the whole concept of the album is a sketchy, ill-conceived mess. It's not a very fun album to play either.

Brian Eno has just released an album with the members of U2, released under the name of "Passengers." The title of the album is Original Soundtracks I, and each of the 14 tracks supposedly represents the spirit of a film conceived within Eno's imagination. The ambient textures are sometimes intrusive, so you may try to analyze some of the instrumentals as an extension of U2's post-Zooropa ambitions. There are some enjoyable moments in songs like "Your Blue Room" and even in "Miss Sarajevo," in which Bono's subdued vocals win out over guest star Luciano Pavarotti's unintentionally humorous, soaring tenor in the middle of the song. But once you've concentrated on these tunes, you can't help but feel this project was a failure - recommended for collectors only.