People talk about David Bowie’s phenomenal run of albums across the 1970s – and it really is (almost all) great. So much of it is wonderful, sublime, so near to perfect. And depending where you stop on the scale you have the absolute cut-off of Scary Monsters or tolerance/appreciation for Let’s Dance. From there it’s usually agreed there’s little of merit; little that is required/necessary.
I’ve collected almost everything by Bowie. I’m not a completist – I’m just talking original studio albums, the official live material and standard compilations.
His final album ★ was terrific; a way to go out – and since then we’ve probably experienced people getting a bit too excited about some of the lesser works. But certainly he created a masterpiece in his final years/days. There was some patchy stuff ahead of that, and a few albums that were unfairly written off too.
There might be Bowie fans out there prepared to make a case for Black Tie White Noise – and certainly it had (like almost all Bowie albums) some strong songs. There might also be people prepared to go in to bat for Tonight and Never Let Me Down. These people carry hand-towels at all times and breathe through the mouth.
If you think that ‘Hours…’ is the great under-rated Bowie album congratulations: you’ve now been standing on your hind legs for five paragraphs. Someone will wipe the drool from the screen shortly.
For me there’s no question – the great underrated David Bowie album is 1995’s 1. Outside, a baffling and overreaching concept album that comes with liner-notes that are almost a novella detailing a sci-fi plot. You can click on this Wiki link for a summary of the plot.
Bowie was working with some of the people that had been crucial in his career already. Most obviously Brian Eno but the tinkling, exasperated space-jazz piano of Mike Garson is a highlight again and if Tin Machine was good for anything it might be the working relationship that Bowie created with guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Superb jazz and session drummer Joey Baron offers many highlights across the Outside album but just listen to the opening, title track. Those fills, the space and time he creates, he floats over and above and around the meter while pushing through when it suits. Beautiful.
Bowie’s ears were attuned to Sonic Youth and Nine Inch Nails, to dance music and prog. And he made an album that seemed to channel some of the paranoia that was seeping in to the culture during the second half of the last decade of the 20th Century.
Outside was to be the first in a series – hence 1. Outside; it also carries the rather unwieldy (downright unnecessary) subtitle: The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle. Um, okay.
This was to be part of a trilogy – then there was talk of five albums, even ten. There was just the one. And it tanked.
I bought it – because I was a huge Bowie fan in 1995. Just a few weeks after buying it I found it for $5. I bought three more copies. I couldn’t believe it was so cheap. I wanted to have it to give to people; to let them experience it.
I’ve never tired of Outside. It’s still one of my favourite Bowie albums – and the great underrated album of his career, as far as I’m concerned. It’s less an album – more a musical version of a graphic novel.
In fact Heart’s Filthy Lesson owes a great deal of its success to its inclusion in the hit film Se7en. Similarly, I’m Deranged, also from Outside, was crucial on the soundtrack to Lost Highway. These moody, lurid films were perfect for the Outside material. Bowie’s songs were perfect for those movies.
Listening to Outside now – for the first time in a few months – I’m struck by the fact that it’s rather dated in places and still quite futuristic-seeming (if not completely futuristic-sounding) in some other places. I remember, 22 years ago now, thinking the same thing. Some of it was brash, gauche even. Some of it was transcendent.
Importantly it’s an album that makes you listen. It’s a challenge. And because it plays as an album – the singles don’t feel like awkward, standout/standalone moments; they don’t feel like they’ve been thrashed/ruined – I really feel like this album could work for those that have never really been a fan of any of Bowie’s work. Though quite why you’d feel that way is beyond me.
It’s also very much a CD – an album made to suit and fit that format. The compact disc was a ghastly medium for many reasons – including design and sound. But worst of all was the extended running time, giving artists a chance to say way too much often when there really wasn’t a lot to actually say. This Bowie album would have only worked on this medium though.
I’m not saying it’s his best but I think it works really well – pair it up with Low or Lodger, listen to it before you listen to ★ – play it before you dive back into the early/mid 70s magic; curtain-raiser for Station to Station. It really is one of the under-rated gems in a catalogue filled with many magical moments.