By his own estimation, David Bowie‘s Young Americans was “the definitive plastic soul” record of the ’70s. That view, offered towards the end of the same decade, remains a harsh indictment of an album that for all its faults contains cool moments of blue-eyed soul (“Can You Hear Me?”), along with two certifiable cross-over classics (“Young Americans” and “Fame”).
Yet what Bowie most certainly was alluding to at the time were his credentials for assimilating a music that so clearly wasn’t “his” to begin with. Over the years, Bowie’s harsher critics have consistently proffered a similar complaint — namely that his main talent is one for opportunism. A career as long, varied, and innovative as his belies such claims, but even Bowie’s staunchest ally would be hard pressed to defend Earthling (1997) from such accusations.
If Young Americans was the ultimate plastic soul, Earthling bows down only to U2’s Pop as the champion of synthetic drum ‘n’ bass (U2 gets the nod, by a snare). The critical difference between a work like Young Americans and Earthling though, is one of aspiration. When Bowie recorded the former in Los Angeles, 1974, he’d spent much of the previous year absorbing the underground soul sound, and set out to make the best damn Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone record he could make. That it didn’t emerge reeking of authentic soul, at least in his mind, wasn’t for the lack of trying.
In contrast, the drum ‘n’ bass bubble had already burst by the time Bowie got around to it. The dance music revolution began in the late-’80s with Bowie in absentia, and by the time of his creative rejuvenation a half decade later, he was caught between rock and a hard beat, attempting to play catch-up; Earthling is what emerged. With this endeavor, Bowie wasn’t attempting to outduel Goldie, but was instead picking at the bones of a rotting, albeit intriguing genre carcass. The result could have been worse, but it still left him open to attacks of dilettantism.
For all of that, Earthling is essentially a conventional Bowie rock album (if such a thing be), dressed in baggy dance garb. Lyrically it finds Bowie at his most obtuse — “Nowhere — Shampoo T.V. — Come back Boy’s Own / Slim tie Showdown — Can’t Stop” — (from “Looking for Satellites”), but then Bowie was never really interested in linear narrative anyway. As a champion of such offbeat luminaries as David Lynch in film and JG Ballard in literature, he’s interested in the more outré methods of storytelling, pursuing what goes on beneath the surface.
Perhaps the biggest fault with the album is that the drum loops and patterns (programmed by Mark Plati) often dance around the songs instead of through them. Only on a couple of tracks, “Little Wonder” and “Telling Lies” do the beats feel entirely organic. “I’m Afraid of Americans” — unsurprisingly released as a single — is pretty much straight-ahead rock, with syncopated beats losing out to the weighty guitar of Reeves Gabrels. For all his experimental edge, Bowie always returns home to rock eventually.
The recent Earthling re-release from Sony promises the now standard “digital re-mastering”, though how an album that’s only seven years old could warrant a production overhaul is a mystery to me. Of the bonus tracks, Trent Reznor’s re-mix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” is both the most faithful treatment, as well as the most useful. Several other re-mixes serve merely as archival snapshots of an era when the dance re-mix was imagined as the best way to gain exposure for a new track; typically here, they tend to be a surplus rather than a bonus.
Earthling followed on the heels of the sometimes inspired avant-garde musings played out on Outside (1995), and preceded the dull, dreary exhaustion of hours (1999). The temptation after the latter was to believe Bowie had finally shot his creative wad, a feeling Heathen (2002) only served to confirm. In 2004, however, Bowie released Reality and, remarkably enough, found inspiration once again. It’s startling to imagine that Bowie’s closest active music contemporaries would be the Rolling Stones, and alone of his generation (and perhaps, too, of the generation that followed in his wake), Bowie continues to investigate new territories, resisting any urge to rest on his back-catalogue.