There’s some tough competition for what I would call Bowie’s most ambitious album, but 1. Outside gives a really convincing argument for itself. Bowie had always wanted to be more than just a musician. Even since the ’60s, he had expressed his desire to write plays, act, direct, and he did do a lot of that. 1. Outside was going to be a play, but he couldn’t figure out how it could be done at the time. Despite that, this is such an ambitious project, and the way it was created, and what it tries to be are all really compelling and fascinating. It started when Bowie reconnected with Brian Eno, talking about making music together again. They visited a psychiatric hospital where the patients famously do “outsider art”, or art that has no connections whatsoever to the mainstream art world. This inspired them to record something that ended up just being hours of dialogue, or in other words, something he could not publish. I’m really interested in listening to these Leon tapes, but I haven’t yet. I saw that they mysteriously and coincidentally “leaked” on the day Blackstar came out, too. At this time, Bowie also kept a diary of a fictional detective that spanned his life over fifteen years.
All of this combined into them writing all of these songs about a story that’s even harder to wrap your head completely around. Bowie’s character, Detective Nathan Adler, is investigating the murder of a girl in a world where “murder and mutilation of bodies” was a new art craze. There’s Leon Blank, the accused murderer; Baby Grace, the victim; and a lot of different people interviewed or giving their own accounts. It’s hard to keep track of, but it’s certainly interesting considering all of these characters are, according to Bowie, pieces of himself. So it’s like a murder mystery and an intimate look at Bowie himself. The story reminds me of two things, Twin Peaks for the main narrative of Adler investigating the death of Baby Grace, and Bladerunner for the futuristic part of it and the music, and I can’t help but imagine Deckard when I think of the main character.
It’s not just interesting for its concept though! There are also a lot of great songs! I don’t know if I’m in the minority or not, but the length doesn’t bother me at all, nor do the segues. In fact, for the past three hours I’ve been reading about this album. It’s fascinating, and some may find it bloated or the sequencing strange, but I’m a fan, to be honest. There’s a lot to appreciate about Bowie’s backing band on the album. Mike Garson is everywhere, and he’s such a fun pianist. He takes a front seat on A Small Plot of Land, a very jazzy song that’s like a fast-paced sequel to South Horizon. It doesn’t have the chance to pause for breath, and Mike Garson tinkles on some nervous notes while Bowie belts out some off-putting lyrics and delivery; I love how he holds the first part of the word, it’s so creepy. I remember a quote that Sara Quinn said about The Con having its weirdest songs at the beginning, about how you can’t lose your listener in the first half, so you can still be weird without worrying about them turning it off. That seems to absolutely be the case here, and it’s always made this song so striking to me. It’s almost a bad representation of the album, because there are a lot of great hooks and a lot of catchy songs on this album, but I always think of it as so dark and impenetrable because of the choice to have a song like this so early in the running. By the end of the song, it devolves into lots of little voices vying to be heard. This is a dark and weird album, but this was a bold and smart movie. There are a couple of other songs like it where Garson takes the lead, but this is the oddest. The Motel is also really nice, a lot more subdued and with a great hip-hop beat.
Since Tim Machine, Reeves Gabrels had been Bowie’s go-to guitar guy, and I like how Bowie uses him so much more than how he played in their band. Bowie is a really inventive songwriter, but as I’ve mentioned before, one of his fortes is absolutely how he can take talented people and let them loose and reign in their creations in interesting ways, and I think that Gabrels is really talented when manipulated by Bowie, or at least allowed to play over Bowie’s own music. His riff on Heart’s Filthy Lesson is great, and it highlights another aspect that I love so much on this album. There are a lot of repeated patterns, meaning that one thing happens in the song and it’s driven into the ground. It’s not just this song but also the isolated guitar on Hallo Spaceboy. I’ve been so curious about the story of Outside, but that’s a song that seems to be more of an update on Ziggy, and it reminds me most of that spacesuit in the Blackstar video with the skeleton inside.
Of all the people playing with Bowie, I’m most pleased to hear Carlos Alomar back on rhythm! For almost the last time, sadly. His last great send-off is I Have Not Been to Oxford Town. It’s a standout on the album, and Alomar is a huge reason for that. His funky guitar riff is so great to hear again, and it’s so good it’s duplicated throughout the song until he has like three playing at the same time. It’s such a jaunty and bright song. The bass is cool and predates The Flaming Lips’ bass style on Yoshimi (including the hip-hop beat!). I love the spoken word on here too, it reminds me a lot of David Byrne. They function as kind of asides in the song, like the music opens up a space for him to look at the audience and knowingly tell them something about the scene. The main lyrics became like a mantra repeated and repeated like a duet with Alomar’s repeated rhythm.
I know that there were a lot of influences on this album, like Nine Inch Nails which I have yet to really listen to outside of a few cool songs I’ve heard, but there’s one current musician who some of the songs on here remind me so much of. Matthew Dear is an electronic musician, and he has a deep voice similar to Bowie’s, and while that plays a part, there’s also his music which is murky and reliant on loops of bass and drums, and tracks like No Control remind me so much of that. They’re obviously not the same, but I wonder if Matthew Dear was a fan of Outside, because my guess is yes. Related to that murky atmosphere, I really love what’s going on in Wishful Beginnings. It’s so creepy, and it contributes so much to the atmosphere of the album and the weird dystopian story. I’m not all that familiar with Scott Walker, but of what little I’ve heard of him, he seems to be a huge influence on this album and songs like Wishful Beginnings. I love that eerie quality, atmosphere over catchiness.
I mentioned that I really enjoy the segues and trying to piece together the story. If you’re trying to get into this album, I really suggest you either listen in bed or take a long walk at night. I was listening to this in the morning the other day, and it’s incomparable to sitting here in the dark. My favorite segue is Algeria Touchshriek, about a lonely man. I love the way he says, “he’s a broken man… I am also.. a broken man”. It gives me chills. The album narrative isn’t very clear, but the segues give a little glimpse into a small story, like that or Ramona A. Stone who is like evil Bowie. She’s probably the one who killed Baby Grace, not Leon. Instead of a proper ending (something I’ve become less and less concerned about in the media I consume), it ends with Strangers When We Meet, a song that was so good he couldn’t hide it on Buddha of Suburbia. It doesn’t really fit on this album at all, but it’s still top notch here in its more polished form.
There are so many good songs on this album to talk about, and already I feel like I’m not doing this album nearly enough justice it deserves. It’s a daunting album for sure, but if you give it a chance, it will surprise and impress you.