1977 found one David Bowie and one Brian Eno holed up in Berlin, laying the sonic foundations for the brilliant trio of albums known by their single-word titles of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. Filled with Eno’s space-age synthesized palette, Bowie’s oft-atonal song structures, and Robert Fripp’s absurd guitar sounds, the “Berlin Trilogy” [as it has since come to be called] represents to many the most perfect wedding of pure musical artistry with a rock and roll spirit: tracks such as “Sound and Vision”, “Heroes”, “Joe the Lion”, “Red Sails”, and “Look Back in Anger” remain seminal in every sense of the term.
And so it was to great excitement in 1995 that Bowie announced to the world a soon-to-be-released trio of albums co-created in post-Berlin Wall Europe with one Eno. Conceived as a “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle” [capitals belonging to the guy whose name was originally Davey Jones], the Nathan Adler Cycle was to trace a series of art-crimes [mostly inspired by the violent work of Damien Hirst] from [coincidentally] 1977 Berlin through the turn of the millennia [in 2000, in case you needed the help]. Especially for a man who promised in a 1987 album title never to let the listener down — and then released the three absolutely worst albums of his solo career — it was with excited anticipation that Outside, officially stamped first of three on its cover, arrived that fall.
This spring, Outside arrives again, to remind Bowie aficionados of the two-faced truth we’ve been forced to face about our hero: as much as he can raise our spirits, so, too, can he break our hearts. Outside is the perfect example of both. Following on the heels of the failed Nile Roger’s collaboration called Black Tie, White Noise, this new work with Eno promised that Bowie found the muse that had mostly been eluding him for the previous decade. But even that promise was broken as New Year’s Eve broke turning 2000 into 2001 without the release of any further work in the art-crime cycle. And so Outside remains a prelude to a work never written; the first chapter of a potential masterpiece whose core has been summarily tossed in the trash by its oft-distracted creator.
But what an introduction. Stylistically, lyrically, musically — in fact, every way but narratively — Outside is a masterpiece. The album features modern music’s greatest chameleon playing no fewer than five distinct roles: the aforementioned Nathan Adler, brutalized victim Baby Grace, common criminal Leon Blank, old cod Algeria Touchshreik, and saucy vixen Ramona A. Stone with the dramatic vigor that makes seeing Bowie live such an incredible experience. Lyrically, our hero sings about “The heart’s filthy lesson”, “A fantastic death abyss”, “Stomping along on the big Phillip Johnson” and research that pierces all extremes of his sex. In other words: the wonderful crypto-symbolic poetry that Bowie’s been churning out since he sang of the Cygnet Committee or The Width of a Circle. Like the Berlin Trilogy of old, and unlike just about everything that filled the albums following the ironically titled Never Let Me Down, Outside aspires to be so much more than a mere pop trinket.
It is that aspiration that brings the album to its greatest heights. Bowie chooses to set his loose story of murder and confusion against a sprawling background of sound that alternates from the techno-infused drumbeat of “We Prick You” to the radio-ready riff of “Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes”. Singing, strumming his guitar, and playing the sax featured frequently in his work, Bowie augments the texture of Outside by bringing together perhaps his most ambitious band. Eno is, of course, leading the charge, given credit not only for synthesizers, but also for the oblique “treatments & strategies”. Old Bowie mates like Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels and Aladdin Sane pianist Mike Garson join the party by adding their own frenetic and frenzied contributions to music that is both jarring and compelling. And long-time Bowie sidemen Carlos Alomar and Erdal Kizilcay lend their usual staunch support to under gird the musical madness that happens over their always-reliable rhythms.
Mood music, club trance, pop tunes, longing ballads, art monologues and sonic segues all combine in one masterful seventy minutes of listening that makes Outside one of the most complete, if not completely overlooked, additions to the enormous Bowie catalogue. Wrongfully out of print from almost the month it was released, Outside is a welcome re-addition to the never-ending spate of Bowie re-releases and re-masters. Although its sole bonus track, the UK B-side “Get Real” actually detracts from the album, it’s a gas to look through the “bonus” artwork in the liner notes to trace an art-mystery that has yet to be solved. In perhaps the greatest puzzle of Bowie’s oft-puzzling career, one wonders how such as strong album as Outside began a trilogy that ended with the rushed and trendy sounds of Earthling and Hours. Like the death of one Baby Grace, the death of the art at the core of Outside will unfortunately go unsolved forever.