Emerging with a clatter at the beginning of the internet age and peddling millennial paranoia through a confoundingly labyrinthine cyber-noir narrative, David Bowie‘s 1995 album Outside looks both backwards and forwards simultaneously, marking the start of one of rock’s greatest third acts ever.
In the mid-’90s Bowie was at a crossroads. He’d lost his edge midway through the previous decade and struggled to regain credibility even after shrugging off the trappings of his commercial pop period by creating a back to basics rock band, Tin Machine. Whilst he appeared to claw his way back into critics’ and audience’s good graces with an album that merged shiny pop with house music (1993’s BlackTieWhiteNoise), something altogether strange had nonetheless been fermenting. In a career full of oddities, 1995’s Outside is the longest, darkest and weirdest album Bowie produced, presaging themes as disparate as art-based mutilation, pre-millennial tension, and that nascent harbinger of cultural revolution: the internet.
A quarter of a century after its release, Outside still stands out as an odd, infuriatingly dense, and often brilliant record from (and of) an artist sho, having been one of popular music’s leading lights in the ’70s, was newly inspired – manically so. With Outside, Bowie was rewriting his creative legacy by tapping into the rock underground, and into Art as the guiding principle behind his music.
The established narrative is that 1993’s BlackTieWhiteNoise is the beginning of Bowie’s creative renaissance, kickstarting the ’90s as the decade where he turned things around, and there’s some truth to that. But stylistically it’s still a pop record, albeit a substantially less terrible one than either 1987’s career nadir Never Let Me Down or 1984’s curious but hollow Tonight. BlackTieWhiteNoise shows some signs, through its flirtation with house music, of a return to innovation and inspiration, but instead of immersing itself in that style’s revelatory transcendence through repetition and corporeality, it mostly attempts to drag house into the centre of the pop mainstream. It’s just as polished an album as either of his previous two – but some the songs are better. Its best moments (‘Jump They Say’ and ‘Pallas Athena’ amongst them) are invigorating, but there’s still plenty of aimless and contrived filler. BlackTieWhiteNoise is less a rebirth than a palette cleanser.
Outside, however, is the main course. And what a mess of a feast it is. Moreso, it’s the album where Bowie the provocateur re-emerges; Bowie the boundary-pusher – the art star. He leaves the pop mainstream for the underground – he quite literally goes “outside”. But instead of the cold minimalist who gave us Low and Heroes, everything about Outside is maximalist. It ditches everything, including the kitchen sink, and what it keeps it puts into a blender and maniacally cranks it to 11 — then throws the resulting sludge at the wall. Most of it sticks.
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A not insignificant aspect of that return to art for arts sake is the presence of Brian Eno, who collaborated on Bowie’s Berlin trilogy: 1977’s Low and Heroes and 1979’s Lodger. Eno brought his obtuse approach of musical creation to those albums, yielding some of Bowie’s most strikingly original and least commercially viable material. Their legacy within Bowie’s discography stands as one of his creative peaks and certainly a period of unrepentant dedication to his craft as (mostly) art over entertainment.
Bowie reconnected with Eno at his wedding to Iman Abdulmajid in 1992. They began a conversation about, as Bowie put it, “nibbling at the periphery of the mainstream rather than jumping in”. They visited a psychiatric hospital near Vienna whose patients used art to communicate, and convened a band in Montreux, Switzerland with nothing written (save for one track: ‘Strangers When We Meet’). The band jammed for two weeks straight. Bowie painted in the studio, joining them when his interest was piqued, cutting up lyrics using the custom Verbasizer software programme – not the first time he would employ the William S. Burrough’s-inspired cut-up approach – and decided on the fly whether he would read, sing or “perform” as one of a series of characters he was carving out as the band improvised around him.
That only one song was written prior to entering the studio, and that a reported 35- hours worth of material was eventually syphoned through to create the bare bones of Outisde‘s tracks, speaks to Bowie and Eno’s intention to approach the album from an experimental angle. The use of Eno’s Oblique Strategies flashcards in the studio and Bowie’s use of Burroughs-ian lyrical cut-ups certainly indicate an intention to abstract the creative process too. Neil Tennant‘s cut up version of the lyrics of ‘Space Oddity’ for the Pet Shop Boys remix of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ echoes the strategy’s pivotal role within the creation of the album.
What emerged from the Montreux sessions was not the Outside album – not quite. Instead, the band came up with five 20- to 30-minute suites of music, which have subsequently come to be known collectively as the Leon suites. The tapes for two of the suites were reportedly destroyed, and Bowie pitched the remaining hour’s worth of music to various labels unsuccessfully. It’s worth remembering that in 1995, Bowie’s legacy as an innovator had been largely tarnished by the second half of the ’80s and recent efforts had only gone some way to restoring goodwill commercially and critically. Plus, what remains of Leon – or at least what has seen the light of day via leaked and unofficially remixed bootlegs — is a shambles, and not a particularly compelling one either. What labels were arguably pitched with Leon was evidently undercooked yet frustratingly dense – a sprawling, writhing mass of ideas that are promising but ultimately underdeveloped. Nonetheless, the Montreaux sessions yielded the majority of Outside‘s backing tracks.
It’s arguably for the best that nobody wanted to release Leon, because Bowie returned home to New York and started refining many of the ideas that had emerged during the sessions that bore that material. Around this time Q Magazine had asked him to publish a ten-day diary around the recording of the album. Instead, he wrote a diary comprising 15 years in the life of Nathan Adler – one of the characters that emerged in Montreux, jumping as it does between New Years Eve 1999 in Oxford Town, New Jersey, 1994 in New York and 1977 in Kreutzberg Berlin – a nod, no doubt, to the time and place that Bowie had created his legendary trilogy with Eno. It’s no coincidence that Adler’s diary reflects the timeline between the album’s completion and its setting of five years – recalling the opening number of Bowie’s first concept album from 1972 and its “five years left of crying”.
Adler’s diary forms the basis, or rather a single element, of a wider story that comprises the album’s concept: a neo-noir cyberpunk murder mystery surrounding the ritualistic “art murder” of a 14-year-old girl named Baby Grace Blue. Supporting characters emerge: art-terrorist gang leader Ramona A. Stone, fall guy Leon Blank, and art-drug and DNA print dealer Algeria Touchshriek. These characters receive their own “segue” – short introductory passages with ambient backing soundscapes over which Bowie affects accents and employs digital effects on some of his most outlandish voice work.
Other tracks are sung from the perspective of the people of Oxford Town, the jury convicting Leon, and the artist – otherwise known as “the minotaur” – the image of which had become a recurring theme in paintings Bowie was making at the time. That’s really all that needs to be gleaned about the concept behind the album. Any more (and there is so much more, unpacked and nitpicked over on numerous blogs and fansites) becomes confusing and ultimately dilutes the impact of the album’s conceptual centre: death as art-ritual in a dystopian near-future.
Sex, violence, and death became key themes for Bowie in his consideration of the coming turn of the millennium. He had become influenced by extreme performance artist Ron Athey, whose signature “surgical crown of thorns” Bowie appropriated for the ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ music video. He had asked Athey to perform it, Athey declined, and it was ultimately performed by porn actor Bud Hole. Bowie saw mutilation in performance art as a ritualistic re-rendering of paganism, with Outside‘s art-murder narrative taking the concept further into the realm of fantasy as a sacrifice to the turning of the millennium. In this sense Bowie’s pre-millenial ruminations predicted Y2K panic, albeit in a gorier and more tantalising way, and one that was – in typical fashion – more than a little sexually charged.
Whilst Bowie had been at the forefront of progressing sexual politics in the early ’70s, he had left his personal dalliances with queer culture behind, having lived – by outward appearances at least – a hetero-normative lifestyle for decades, and of course marrying Iman in 1992. Whilst it’s all dress-up and play acting, Outside‘s flirtation with the lexicon of BDSM at least positioned Bowie back in the realm of sexual provocation, albeit in a manner that was subsumed within so many other ideas that it was seemingly de-emphasized – just another aspect of a confoundingly dense conceptual approach.
Nonetheless, for an artist who had been “straight” for so many years, the album is an emphatic declaration of his love for and affinity with those who position themselves “outside” the mainstream. To quote what is arguably the album’s best remembered lyric, from ‘Hallo Spaceboy’: “Do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days” Bowie asks with a wink, reminding us that the svelte androgyne of the early 70s hadn’t disappeared but had merely been joined by a multiplicity of creative identities and personas.
Outside is never wanting for ideas – it’s bursting with them, as its central conceit indicates. That’s apparent from the 24-page booklet that comprises the CD artwork and the frenetic – and very ’90s – digital mash-up of the album art itself which, aside from its painted self-portrait cover, makes abundant use of just about every photoshop filter available at the time in its dizzying, sense-assaulting use of almost two dozen different fonts, all manner of early CG graphics, and layer upon digital layer of text, image and visual noise. There’s also the “db” logo used only on Outside era artwork. The short-lived nature of that particular visual motif is largely unsurprising – it does bear a striking resemblance to a phallus with testicles with the added alliterative component (“dick and balls” anyone?) adding a mischievous extra element of cheek. Another cryptic allusion to Bowie’s historical flirtations with sex as identity? Possibly.
Even the album’s title (it has two, because why not?) speaks to the maximalist pose Bowie was striking: on the album cover it’s 1. Outside, and on the album spine it’s Outside: The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper Cycle. And that slice of cyberpunk short fiction that takes up six pages of the booklet is saddled with the clumsily phrased title The Diary of Nathan Adler Or the Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle. Hopefully it was apparent at this point that Bowie was throwing everything he could at this album and having a grand old time in the process, but the wider context surrounding it helps to flesh out this thesis.
Firstly to that simultaneously telling and somewhat misplaced numeral at the beginning of the album’s title: 1. As Bowie mentioned around its release, Outside was planned as the first in a triptych or possibly even more in a series of albums leading up to the turn of the millennium – a way of counting down, of documenting the cultural, conceptual, existential transition into the 2000s. But just as quickly, Bowie’s creative attentions shifted and he moved on. This in itself speaks to this junction in his artistic evolution – Bowie’s mid-to-late ’90s as a one of the more fertile and art-centric periods in his four-decade career. There are the four albums released in a five-year time period, but there’s also his role as Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s biopic of New York abstract painter Jean-Michel Basquiat – a reminder that art as a concept and raison d’être was never far from his mind at this time, added to by the fact that in 1994 he joined the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine.
Several years later Bowie would also, in collaboration with fellow board member novellist William Boyd, undertake a baffling art hoax by creating the fictitious “forgotten” modernist painter Nat Tate. Most tellingly however, is Bowie’s integration of the possibilities of the internet into his creative practice and commercial model – the seeds of which had certainly been sewn by the time of the Leon sessions. But more on that later. First, to the music itself.
If Bowie’s ’90s albums can largely be characterised as a sampler of electronic music sub-genres, then Outside sits in-between BlackTieWhiteNoise‘s stab at house and Earthling‘s flirtation with drum’n’bass as a marriage of several styles, chiefly industrial and trip hop, as filtered through the lens of art rock – whatever that broad-reaching and vague descriptor might summon. Both of the singles ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ double down on their industrial tendencies, albeit in different ways. The former is slow and funky–it’s almost trip-hop, but there’s too much noise and weirdness–scraping, dirgy guitars, digital flotsam and Garson’s piano, which thunders and then twinkles; and the drums are heavy and foreboding.
The album mix of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ is arguably the heaviest moment of the album, with an unrelenting 4/4 rhythm that sounds like a piece of machinery designed to flatten anything in its path. And yet there’s a lightness to Bowie’s mood as a vocalist. ‘Hallo Spaceboy’s noisy, almightily thudding production might sound heavy, but it’s not a “heavy” song in the way ‘Warszawa’ or ‘Lazarus’ are – its stomping intensity equates to dizzying fun.
Much like a lot of Bowie’s other work from the late ’60s onwards, and although he never embraced progressive rock fully (having Rick Wakeman on Hunky Dory may be the closest he got), Outside can perhaps be described as prog-adjacent. It recalls the dystopian concept-album status of Diamond Dogs, for one. The personnel on the record are another clue – the most immediate link being Eno, whose work in marrying traditional rock instrumentation and structure with electronic arrangements and experimentation is all over the record. Erdal Kızılçay‘s multi-instrumental chops are another key – he only plays bass and keys on the record but his adaptability as an instrumentalist who has mastered both western and Middle Eastern instrumentation (he’s originally from Turkey) are apparent in his dextrous and versatile playing.
The key, however, to understanding the album’s avant-garde leanings lie with long-time collaborator Mike Garson – the musician responsible for the single most bafflingly virtuosic and mind-altering moment on any Bowie song: the piano solo from ‘Aladdin Sane’. On Outside, as with other Bowie recordings on which he’s appeared, Garson’s piano playing is routinely the most gripping element, dancing between structured melody and free playing whilst always in service of the song.
In one specific aspect Outside is still beholden to classic rock, and that’s in the tone and playing of Reeves Gabrels‘ guitar. Whilst he creates an alarming squall and whips up all manner of frenzied textures, his chops are still fully on display in a manner that privileges dexterity over aesthetic – a trend that increasingly became the hallmark of old-school classic rock in an era of crunchy riff-based grunge and various permutations of “textural” playing in the (post)rock underground. Gabrels’ work in Tin Machine was always rough hewn but far more indebted to classic rock virtuosity than the bogus claims of proto-grunge would have us believe. His tone might be noisy but it’s searing, not muddy.
However, on ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ for example, the scorching electricity of Gabrel’s undeniable chops give way to that dirgy, repetitive riffage. It’s no coincidence that in 1995’s heyday of alternative rock, those tracks were chosen as the singles. They may have failed to make much of an impact on the charts upon release, but they’ve remained more relevant and interesting than a fair chunk of Bowie’s post-Scary Monsters singles output.
The soundscapes on Outside, some of which are the musical backing for the spoken-word interstitials and others intros to longer tracks, sit parallel to the rock/electronic hybridity that was being pursued separate to the mainstream by artists who would subsequently be labelled under the moniker of post-rock. Outside is far too ensconced in structured rock songwriting to be labelled such, and its sonic palette is underpinned by generic signifiers of the day like trip hop and industrial music, but in its more spacious moments its tendrils flit towards the experimental rock underground, drawing at least passing interest in it if not out and out inspiration from it. And yet Outside doesn’t fit easily alongside Nine Inch Nails or Ministry as industrial rock, nor does it sit beside Tricky or Portishead as trip-hop. It certainly doesn’t belong alongside post-rock acts Talk Talk or Bark Psychosis, because despite hinting at – or plunging headfirst — into those genres, it’s songs are written by an artist decades older, one whose career has been shaped by classic rock song writing and whose earlier work was an inspiration for the genres he’s now working in.
Sonically Outside has most in common with the album that immediately preceded it, which wasn’t BlackTieWhiteNoise, but his soundtrack for the television mini-series adaptation of Hanif Kureishi‘s The Buddha of Suburbia. This is something of a forgotten moment in Bowie’s career. It’s an odd collection of hastily written songs, experiments with sampling and atmospheric odds and ends that followed BlackTieWhiteNoise‘s April 1993 release date by only six months. Whilst the majority of it feels fairly hurried and uninspiring, its very existence as an album that was commercially released (albeit one that’s been quietly excised from the official catalogue since) speaks to Bowie’s newfound confidence as an artist.
The Buddha of Suburbia shares some personnel – namely multi-instrumentalist EKızılçay and M Garson on a few tracks, and whilst its songs are largely lacklustre comparatively, its arrangements belie the collision of traditional rock instrumentation and early sample-based production that would become more fully realised on Outside. One track in particular, ‘Ian Fish UK Heir’, an ambient drone with pretty if largely formless and noodly classical guitar overlay, is almost a throwback to ‘Moss Garden’ from Heroes. But underpinning the track is a churning and slowly evolving noisescape of synthetic strings, breathy pads, and what could be a sample of a call to prayer of some kind, all buried under reverb and mixed so as to obscure detail. In its textural formlessness the track foregrounds the kind of layered cacophony that would comprise much of Outside‘s production aesthetic.
Outside‘s best songs (and there are plenty) are amongst Bowie’s best ever. It’s two longest tracks are a pair of moody art-rock epics – ‘A Small Plot of Land’ and ‘The Motel’. They’re equally dark in mood, as well as lyrically, but they almost invert one another in form. The former is brisk and propulsive – with Garson’s virtuosic piano dancing atop a tight jazz-funk rhythm and Bowie intoning some of his darkest, most cryptic and compelling cut up lyrics: “the brains talk, but the will to live is dead, and prayer can’t travel so far these days”. Gabrels’ cacophonously wailing guitar collides with washes of noise in a delirious, thrashing climax.
Alternately ‘The Motel’ is a lament. Bowie often introduced the tune live as “a love song to desperation”, and it’s slow, shuffling beat and sullen synth washes morbidly, underpinning more wrist-slitting lyrical imagery: “there is no hell like an old hell”. It swells to an uneasy crescendo before slowly dragging itself off toward a dark horizon.
Bowie does one of his most convincing Scott Walker impressions on ‘Wishful Beginnings’, but Walker had a deeper register than Bowie and he doesn’t strain his voice trying to plumb those vocal depths, instead letting it sit at the breathy bottom end of his range. The track itself wouldn’t feel completely alien on Walker’s release from 1995, the daring avant-rock Tilt. Though that album preceded Bowie’s by four months, as production on Outside had wrapped by February that year, it’s unlikely it had any direct influence. But ‘Wishful Beginnings’ similarly moody, world-weary tone does more than ape one of Bowie’s favourite artists and biggest inspirations – its chiming keys and percussive clicks and whirs add to Outside‘s vast sonic palette in a rare moment of musical pause. If Outside is largely an assault, then at track 13, ‘Wishful Beginnings’ is a welcome reprise from the onslaught.
Foreshadowing 1997’s underrated Earthling album, ‘I’m Deranged’ harnesses the dynamics of drum’n’bass in the service of a pop song, with its success largely down to a loose, open-ended song-structure that lets Bowie croon, Garson filigree, and Gabrels scratch and noodle away over a dubby chord progression, with the whole thing sitting neatly atop a juddering jungle-lite rhythm. It’s compellingly dark, visceral and confusing. No wonder it found a place on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway two years later.
As the album draws to a close the churning intensity of its most gripping early moments gives way to more reflective, slower-paced tracks in the almost optimistic electronic pop of ‘Thru These Architect’s Eyes’ and the mid-tempo AOR of album closer ‘Strangers When We Meet’, a track which first appeared in a less compelling arrangement on The Buddha of Suburbia. It’s an odd place to end an equally odd album – clearly an attempt to end a tumultuous and baffling narrative in the most cinematic of ways: injecting a sense of calm whilst perpetuating the noir-ish air of mystery.
Outside is far from a perfect record. At 74-minutes it’s far too long, a perspective Bowie came to himself after it had already made its way into the world. Five of its 19 tracks are longer than five minutes with its two most obtuse tracks: the avant-jazz of ‘A Small Plot of Land’ and the devastatingly moody ‘The Motel’ both over six and a half, which might be viewed as indulgent if those two weren’t amongst the best on the album. Released at the height of the popularity of CD as the preferred physical format for musical recordings, Outside takes full advantage of the extended playing time that the medium affords, arguably to its detriment. The album’s second half drags. Its final ten tracks contain four character “segues” as opposed to the first nine containing only one, and some of its weaker tracks bog down the album once it passes the half-hour mark.
It’s also infuriatingly dense – purposefully so, but nonetheless. Its concept, whilst laid out in its artwork and lyrics remains too busy to be clearly realised but too underdeveloped to have a truly significant impact. There are some fascinating ideas thrown around – it’s like a roiling stew of sex, death, drugs and technological paranoia, all set against a backdrop of a near-future where murder is a continuum with art and crime at each end of its axis. Outside arguably goes further than it might in pursuing these ideas by including the various spoken-word segues, which in the context of music are unnecessary and more often than not embarrassing, if not unlistenable.
Nathan Adler’s comically hammy gumshoe croak is funny once but outstays its welcome on repeated listens. Algeria Touchshriek’s raspy aged mumblings are effective but awkward. Baby Grace Blue’s rambling, vulnerable innocence, however, makes use of a pitch-shift effect to turn Bowie’s voice into that of an adolescent girl, and it’s utterly on-the-nose. But taken in another context the characters are also forgiveably corny. Bowie takes his persona-swapping to the nth degree, a doubling down of the “character as concept” that he began with Major Tom and flirted with across his career. They might be silly and throwaway, and the album retains them to its detriment, but they speak to the zeal with which ideas were flowing for Bowie at the time.
The segues also speak to the role of the Leon suites in the development of Outside as a multi-format work, of which the album is the final and most polished iteration, but by which time its narrative almost ceases to create an impact alongside the far more compelling music. Musically, Leon is also underdeveloped compared to the tighter and more nuanced Outside. Its loose jams are characterised by plodding beats and unformed repetitive structures that lack the dynamics that the album’s more developed songs would yield. As such, all seasoned players like Gabrels and Garson can do is scratch at the edges – they tinker and flail about, occasionally fumbling across a cogent or compelling phrase – inevitably something that would find itself more fully fleshed out on the album.
Bowie’s spoken word intro to what has come to be known as the ‘Enemy is Fragile’ suite is vaguely reminiscent of the track ‘Glass Spider’ from Never Let Me Down, which he used as a theatrical introduction to that tour. That comparison perhaps gives the best indication of how Leon should be considered: not as music in the traditional sense, but arguably as part of a layered, performance driven multi-media art concept. Indeed, Bowie had briefly considered performing the album as a theatre-based work, but couldn’t figure out how to do it. Taken in totality with Outside, Leon is a fascinating part of the puzzle. On its own it’s largely insipid and flat. And yet, like many other moments of Bowie’s career, it has inspired feverous fan attention, receiving numerous remixes that re-edit and re-order the material to various ends.
What comes across far more from the Leon sessions than the album itself is Bowie’s infatuation with the internet, then in its infancy but soon to become omnipresent. He waxes poetic as a series of characters, but almost always comes back to his own voice when speaking directly about the internet. In one excerpt he affects a slightly more plummy British accent, intoning: “I think we’re stuck in a web. A sort of nerve net. As it were a sort of nerve internet, as it were. We might be here for quite a long time.” Here he name drops Eno’s 1992 album Nerve Net, working it into his metaphor about the internet’s capacity to entice and trap people through its potential for connection, its promise of content, and its capacity to offer respite; belonging and fulfilment of various kinds. Elsewhere he builds upon the image of the “information superhighway”, comparing it to “a nineteenth century railroad that passes through the bandlands of the old west.”
Bowie’s prophetic pronouncements about the zeitgeist-redefining nature of the internet have become widely acknowledged in his 1999 interview with journalist Jeremy Paxman, which has gained a degree of viral permeation subsequent to Bowie’s death. Bowie recognised the potential for the internet as not only a communication tool – a new medium, but as a means for connection and community that would revolutionise communication. Less than a year prior he had launched Bowienet, his own subscription-based ISP and member-based website that offered benefits including exclusive content and access to the man himself.
Indeed, Bowie had always been an early adopter of new technology, from music video to CD-ROM, to streaming concerts online. The possibilities of the internet had obviously been playing on his mind as early as the Leon sessions in 1994, with that particular notion finding its way onto Outside as Algeria Touchshriek refers to an associate known as Wollof Bomburg, who is characterised as “a reject from the worldwide internet.” Bomburg is labelled “a broken man”, with Touchshriek also describing “watching the young advancing all electric.” Here, with the internet still in its infancy Bowie was already cognisant of its potential to change lives, and taken alongside Outside‘s cyber-noir narrative its capacity to facilitate a kind of time travel based around access and nostalgia.
Several years later Bowienet’s chat rooms tapped into the internet’s facility to nurture fan communities, which was, of course, the birth yawp of what we know as social media. As an incidental aside, Bowienet was launched by London-based PR firm Outside Organisation, with whom Bowie was working at the time.
Outside found its way into the world in the final quarter of 1995 amidst the US and European tour of the same name, notable for its inclusion of Nine Inch Nails as the support act, or rather as a quasi co-headliner whereby their sets would overlap for a number of tracks. That particular touring partnership would facilitate Trent Reznor’s appearance in the ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ music video and several remixes of Outside and Earthling material.
Aside from compilations and the occasional hit album (Let’s Dance, for example) Bowie had never had significant chart success with albums around their original releases and Outside certainly didn’t disrupt that trend, peaking just within the US Top 10 and only staying in the charts for six weeks. None of its singles made many ripples either. Only ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ pierced the charts in multiple countries, thanks largely to the Pet Shop Boys remix, which draws out the song’s melodies and shears off its rough industrial edges.
Critically the album received mixed reviews, with almost unanimous opinion that although musically challenging and inventive, it was ultimately weighed down by its bloated attempt at world-building. But critical reappraisal has shifted its place in Bowie’s oeuvre. In a 2018 Consequence of Sound article, Outside is ranked as his seventh greatest album, one above Blackstar, which is perhaps fitting: there would be no Blackstar without Outside. A direct line can be drawn between the avant-jazz/rock fusion of ‘A Small Plot of Land’ and ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ for example, or between the devastating vastness of ‘The Motel’ and the latter album’s title track. Junkee ranked his albums two years later with Outside coming in eighth.
A significant part of this reappraisal is no doubt due to the reflexive view cast over Bowie’s back catalogue in the years following his death, and what’s become apparent from surveying the peaks and troughs of one of the most varied and consistently boundary-pushing bodies of work in popular music is Outside‘s place at the nexus of a very particular shift in Bowie’s career. It signalled the end of Bowie as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator. Although he’d attempt all manner of styles over the next two decades – from bland adult-oriented pop on 1999’s hours… to back-to-basics rock on The Next Day, it was always done as an artist looking backwards as much as forwards, taking stock and not necessarily retreading the past but certainly paying homage to it.
Even Earthling – released the year Bowie turned 50, acknowledges in its title at least that the man who fell to earth had finally decided to call this planet home. The restless innovation is still there but it’s tempered by an an acceptance; a calm that comes with age. Outside is the first time that artful fervour is balanced against an assuredness that comes from innovating and experimenting for so long.
Outside might not be Bowie’s best album – track for track Ziggy and Low are both faultless and peerless — and despite its best moments it’s flabbier than a number of others. But it’s arguably his Bowie-est album. Outside is often brilliant and inspired, daringly experimental, and on occasion frustratingly close to genius but falling slightly short. It is, arguably, more than any other album in his catalogue, completely in love with ideas and throwing itself at them with conviction and abandon. Bowie liked to think of himself as a curator, picking through culture for interesting notions and trying them on. On Outside he does this with greater eagerness and relish than perhaps ever before or since.
If the album’s not completely setting the musical agenda it’s at least running a very close parallel to it and keeping pace. By the ’90s Bowie had already had his time defining and ushering in new musical trends, with the bulk of his ’70s output still considered utterly revelatory. It’s fairly unreasonable then, to expect a 48-year-old artist to continue to set trends, but Outside parallels what was happening on the fringes of ’90s rock culture – only just in the underground, as alternative enmeshed with mainstream.
Looking back a quarter of a century at Outside there are some undeniable markers of its time that have dated it: its themes of millennial masochism and murder, congealing in cyber-noir window dressing are very of their time. That’s never more apparent than leafing through the album artwork – little of it has aged well. Some of its production – airy pads, glitchy electronic textures and the balance of crunch and sheen on the guitars for example locate it very much within the mid-’90s sonically. But more often than not its aesthetic preoccupations are so odd and out of step with anything else at the time that they consolidate its weirdness, they distract from its missteps. And of course all of it; the lumpen markers of mid-’90s alterna-electro-avant-rock and the bristling, stirring strangeness is put to use in the service largely of compelling and thoroughly unique songs.
Outside remains a compelling, complicated, frustrating and flawed listen. Its best moments could have made for one heck of a 40-minute album – arguably top five amongst a career of persistent genius. But despite its bloated length and conceptual breadth it remains somehow incomplete – the marker of that telling 1. again. Bowie and Eno were reportedly contemplating a return to the project before his death. Who knows what might have come from such? But instead we have this – simultaneously too much and not enough; detailed, layered and yet ultimately unfinished. That Bowie never completed the album cycle isn’t necessarily a shame so much as it speaks to his career-long tug of war between creating worlds and stories with his albums and what’s left unsaid – in allowing the myth and meaning-making to be completed by his audience. Surely that’s the way it was meant to be.
Image by pascal OHLMANN from Pixabay
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