If there was any doubt which artist made the biggest impression on the David Bowie/Nine Inch Nails tour, Bowie's new album offers a clue. Nearly every song on Earthling gets its charge from the kind of loud, industrial power riffs and electronically treated vocals that Trent Reznor is so fond of. Bowie may have been the headliner of 1995's dream billing, but like most of the fans who went to the shows, it seems he was there primarily to catch the opening act.
Which is not a bad thing. Bowie's 1995 comeback album, Outside, was an ambitious mix of futuristic conceptualizing and industrial mayhem, but it went way over the top artistically. On that album, Bowie and collaborator Brian Eno bogged down the songs with a forced story line. What Outside needed was some of the musical restraint and pop smarts that Reznor gave to Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. And that's exactly what Bowie brings to the new record, his best since 1980's Scary Monsters.
On Earthling, Bowie lets the songs tell the story. Gone are the spoken interludes and overblown avant-garde flourishes that marred Outside; instead, the tracks on Earthling are linked only by the power of the turbocharged guitars, the energy and intensity of the skittering drum-and-bass rhythms, the spiritual-technological tug of war in the lyrics and Bowie's signature baritone croon.
Bowie begins Earthling, his first self-produced album since 1974's Diamond Dogs, with an explosion of clattering beats and screeching electronics that coalesce into the album's dramatic single, "Little Wonder." He uses drum-and-bass music — the current rage among British techno DJs — as a rhythmic foundation throughout, upping the intensity of songs like "Telling Lies" and the classic Man Who Sold the World vibe of "Battle for Britain (The Letter)." Bowie reaches back to his '70s catalog for several tracks — including the slow-grooving, horns- and Hammond-fueled "Seven Years in Tibet" — but also borrows licks and samples from other spots on the musical map. A jerky, atonal piano break in the middle of "Battle" sounds like John Cage filtered through Mott the Hoople, "Little Wonder" lifts a bass line from the O'Jays; and the refrain of "Seven Years" gets the juices flowing with a blast of Pixies-like loud-soft dynamics.
If Bowie undermined his ominous warnings of a technological future gone haywire on Outside with a trite, sci-noir plot line, he comes off more convincingly this time. On Earthling he returns to the subject of space, a fascination for Bowie since 1969's "Space Oddity." In the shuffling, carnivallike "Looking for Satellites," he sings, "There's something in the sky/Shining in the light/Spinning far away," before his voice conjures up the ghost of John Lennon in the final line, "Who do we look to now?" What remains from Outside are Bowie's attempts to reconcile technological progress with spiritual growth. Over the sound of squealing pigs in "Seven Years in Tibet," he sings that it's "Time to question the mountain/Why pigs can fly" before screaming out the chorus, "I praise to you/Nothing ever goes away."
It's not until the last two songs that Bowie's sound and vision begin to lose steam. "I'm Afraid of Americans" is a stuttering rocker about a paranoid Brit (named Johnny, of course) that seems detached from the other songs. And on the album's finale, "Law (Earthlings on Fire)," Bowie loses his heretofore tasteful grip on contemporary technology. Beginning with a sampled spoken loop proclaiming "I don't want knowledge/I want certainty," the song incorporates the kinds of cheesy electronic effects that you might hear in a TV ad trying to be hip.
Still, if Bowie is not the art-rock pioneer he was in the '70s, his enduring enthusiasm for new musical adventures can be applauded. Earthling doesn't break any new ground, but it certainly captures the mood of contemporary popular culture — from the anguish of American industrial rock to the ecstasy of British dance music.