I love that Bowie never tried to distance himself from his otherworldliness. Even when he shed his part of his mythic and untouchable status, he was never shy about being an alien. Because who would call themselves an earthling except an extra terrestrial? That’s how Bowie looks on the cover standing backwards in his British flag jacket. That’s an alien pretending to fit in (his incredibly exaggerated British accent all over this album, for example, or all the interesting effects he does on his vocals).
You can never say that Bowie gave up, and you can compare his ’90s career to his fertile ’70s as much as you want, but you can’t say that he was at a lack of ideas. After refreshing himself with Tin Machine, he experimented with house music on Black Tie White Noise, played around with drum machines and vocal effects on Buddha of Suburbia, made the industrial music concept album Outside, and now this wild, risky and aggressive drum and bass album. This run of albums doesn’t quite compare to his legacy, but at this point, he didn’t care the way he did in the ’80s. This is also the last of those experimental albums (you could argue that Blackstar is a fusion of this experimental phase and his nostalgia appropriation later), and I think he knew exactly what he was doing when he made it and titled it Earthling. It represented him so much at this time, more than just his legacy as an alien. He was an old man masquerading as a young man. Where normal old musicians would play the hits, stuck in the rut of their past glory, making boring retreads, Bowie fought against that. He was determined to stay artistically relevant, I think. But where in the ’70s, he caught onto trends before they happened, appropriating and defining them, abandoning them before they got stale; now, he was playing catch-up, following trends. He was great, but it doesn’t have the same freshness as it did in the ’70s. That isn’t to say that this is a bad album, because it’s good, although I think that most of his albums are at minimum ‘just good’, to be fair.
I love the aggressiveness, to be honest. There’s a crunch that he was getting back on Outside but finally amped up to full blast on this album, and the way they made it is actually really interesting, making their own samples by speeding up and looping themselves, and sending the guitar to a keyboard in ways that I don’t understand at all. It translates to a very synthetic sound, saxophone that sounds like guitar, and it gives the album a bite that Bowie hadn’t harnessed as well since Scary Monsters’ frenetic vocals and guitar. I love the sound of the guitar on this album, almost like a person screaming at times, but the bass is also to love. When was the last time he had such a nimble bassist? This is the first time collaborating with Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, and she rules. Her bass has a nice sound, and honestly she’s just a really technically proficient bassist who can make some really cool bass fills (that one bit on Little Wonder about 3 and a half minutes in is delightful). She’s the star of this album, as far as I’m concerned. Another highlight of the album, Seven Years in Tibet, has her powering the song until the sudden break of noise and guitar. I love the quiet/loud dynamic here, because in the midst of all the commotion, Bowie is screaming, “I praise to you, nothing ever goes away,” and it’s absolutely cacophonous as it drowns him out. Mike Garson has a great keyboard organ bit going on at this part, almost like a funeral dirge.
All of the songs on this album are really long, and they play out like jams. They were supposed to capture the energy of his band at the time, which he was really proud of, but instead of making a live album to show them off, they made this album but like taking a photo of this time period, they went and photoshopped it to death until it was a totally new beast. Some of the songs are a little too long, but they are all really good. Telling Lies features a great plucked violin sample loop that gets scared away by the musical wilderness around it. The semi-title track closer, Law (Earthlings on Fire), is a Black Tie White Noise track on steroids, and it’s so much fun, creating mental images of a deranged alien zapping humans with its ray gun à la Mars Attacks!
The BIG SONG on the album is I’m Afraid of Americans, probably the most memorable one, and probably also the best. Bowie’s delivery is great, and it’s so robotic with beeps and boops and Bowie’s wonderfully stuttering “uh-uh-uh uh-uh uh uh uh uh”. It attacks you with its hooks, and while this album might seem to have aged poorly to some, I’m Afraid of Americans is hardly affected, notably in the lyrics which are even more relevant now than ever before (the video could have been made yesterday, and gosh what a great video).
But this is an old man’s album in a young man’s clothes, because lyrically Bowie sounds ready to start retrofitting his old music. There are hints of that in the music, too. Looking for Satellites is like a Heathen track changed to fit this album’s manic percussion, and you can hear it under all the noise especially during the bridge, “Where do we look to now? There’s nothing in our eyes”. The chorus itself says as much. The lyrics are really reflective on Earthling, like on Dead Man Walking where he’s singing “and I’m gone… thru a crack in the past”, or his “what are you doing to yrself?” comments on The Last Thing You Should Do. On Outside, he sang that it was “now, not tomorrow, yesterday”, but Earthling finds the past and the future bleeding into the now, and I think now he was finally preparing himself to let go.