Review 1995

David Bowie 1.Outside Review

By Tom Doyle

Strange days indeed. The struggle for creative rebirth that has been Bowie's career since Let's Dance has finally and inexorably drawn him back to his '70s heyday. Welcome back Eno, control room conjuror of the innovative, though largely feeble-selling, Berlin period; Mike Garson and his spidery piano tumblings, first heard on Aladdin Sane; Carlos Alomar, slick guitar charge from Young Americans on. It is, in essence, as if the '80s never happened. This is not to suggest Outside should in any way be considered a regressive move, since it is a clear statement of Bowie aligning himself with the times to produce (and let's not be coy about this) a concept album.

First, apparently, in a series of works centred around fictional "art detective" Nathan Adler (as previewed in Q100) and the inhabitants of the Lynchian Oxford Town, America, the narrative of Outside concerns itself with the "art murder" (a notion inspired by Damien Hirst's animal carcass in formaldehyde prank) of 14-year-old runaway Baby Grace. In between-song narrative segues, by way of voice synthesis, he assumes the roles of not only the victim, but suspects Algeria Touchshriek (a shady 78-year-old man) and - get this - body parts jewellery store owner Ramona A. Stone. In the album artwork Bowie's face is imprinted into weirdly brilliant computer collages featuring each of characters. So far out, so good, and all this before you've heard a note. Clearly the music on Outside is not designed for heavy commercial rotation, and as a whole it's wildly eclectic, veering wide-eyed and sometimes hare-brained from techno (Hallo Spaceboy) to avant-jazz (A Small Plot Of Land) to the meandering epic of the title track.

The entire back catalogue of Bowie vocal styles are employed to full, schizophrenic effect, often in the space of a few lines of lyrical cut-ups that frequently border on the impenetrably enigmatic. In the best moments, he offers the hypnotising noir balladry of The Motel and the stylised collage funk of I Have Not Been To Oxford Town, easily the stand-out, while deflatingly, our 14-track trawl through a seedy end-of-millenium landscape of interest drugs, brain patches and concept mugging leads us to the stodgy rocker Strangers When We Meet, perhaps a Tina Turner duet had it featured on the grim Tonight. A bold and fascinating trip to offer his devoted listenership, Outside is undoubtedly Bowie's most dense and uncompromising work since Scary Monsters & Super Creeps, and, as suggested on Black Tie White Noise, it's clear that he is once again imaginatively sparking with life. Even so, regulars might feel short changed on the tune front, and those legions who came in on Let's Dance will most certainly be left completely and utterly bewildered. Perhaps though, that's entirely the point.