David Bowie has made a career of being anything and everything other than himself. As rock & roll’s consummate quick-change artist, he has created some of the greatest leading roles in the pop-art theater of the imagination: the bisexual charmer of Hunky Dory; the star-crossed alien lipstick-killer Ziggy Stardust; the white-soul dandy of Young Americans; that vampiric-looking beanpole the Thin White Duke; the disco sophisticate of Let’s Dance.
But Outside, Bowie’s first album since his 1993 debacle, Black Tie, White Noise — and a highly anticipated studio reunion with Brian Eno, the co-architect of Bowie’s bench-mark Berlin trilogy Low, “Heroes” and Lodger — is way too much of a good thing. Bowie’s almost pathological fear of dropping all the masks, of simply reveling in the power of a good chorus and the soulful quiver of his maturing tenor, has driven him into multiple-personality overdrive and forced melodrama. The music — a potent collection of avant-garage riffs and rhythm notions co-written mostly with Eno and echoing the weird science of Low and “Heroes” — feels shoehorned into the script with frustrating rigidity.
It didn’t have to be that way. When his voice isn’t being abused by synthetic effects to suit some plot device, Bowie sings with full-bodied vigor and an affecting drama that suits the burned-orange tinge of his and Eno’s industrial-apocalypse soundscapes. Bowie digs into the plastic rattling funk of “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” with a ragged enthusiasm, and his simple, shattering delivery of the words I shake in “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” broadcasts the homicidal delirium of the song much more effectively than the heavymental title.
Indeed, it’s the superfluous wordage — the intrusive spoken monologues, the jury-rigged cybernoir narrative, the overelaborate characterizations — that damn near sink the record. You can practically feel the weight of Bowie’s own description of his story line: “A nonlinear Gothic drama hypercycle.” Outside is really just a confusing highbrow detective fable — Sam Spade meets Neuromancer via Naked Lunch — laid out as the diary of Nathan Adler, a futurist shamus specializing in art-crime investigations (as opposed to crimes against art, which too often go unpunished in real life).
On Outside, Adler is wrapped up a little too tightly in the high-concept ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue, an adolescent of undetermined sexuality. A colorful parade of riffraff with nifty handles like Algeria Touchshriek passes through the diary entries, but nothing much happens aside from Bowie and Adler’s fevered meditations on sculpted gore and the violent possibilities of self-expression. (Best line: “Art’s a farmyard. It’s my job to pick thru the manure heap for the peppercorns.”)
All that explication belies the smart, sharp stab of Bowie’s more effective lyric writing. The lines “Poor dunce/He pushed back the pigmen/The Barbs laughed/The fool is dead” in “A Small Plot of Land,” a looping piece of freakcabaret jazz, say much more about the long dark shadows and desperate, clawing evil poisoning of the Outside world than all of Bowie’s prose wordplay. “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” the jail-house lament of a petty thief falsely accused of the murder, is delivered by Bowie with a nice slice of wry: “And the prison priests are decent/My attorney seems sincere/I fear my days are numbered.” (Also note the song’s sly reference to Bowie’s 1975 hit, “Fame,” in the skittering, metallic rhythm guitar.)
Taken in parts (a bit like the poor, disassembled Baby Grace), Outside has irresistible charms: the tense Euro-dance propulsion of “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”; the layered, circular-guitar locomotion of “Voyeur…,” like Philip Glass in a King Crimson mood. “Hello Space-boy” is the sound of Bowie and Eno going nuclear on Trent Reznor’s death-disco dance floor, hot-wiring the migraine gallop of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” into a ferociously distorted whirl of slaughterhouse jive.
It’s too bad that Bowie and Eno don’t allow themselves the luxury of a straightforward pop song until the very end. You have to wade through 19 tracks of conceptual mischief to get to the simple melodic development and swelling chorus of “Strangers When We Meet.” The song doesn’t do much for Outside‘s lack of dramatic resolution (the last line in Adler’s diary is “To be continued….”). But it shows that Eno can whip up great, uncomplicated pop when he lets his egghead defenses down and that in Bowie’s best work, a little drama still goes a long way.