Pop Albums: Andy Gill on albums: David Bowie Earthling RCA 7432144944 2)
`What comes through most strongly is the way Bowie retains an obsessional interest in the sheer variety and extremity of sound'
For one thing, he has applied the style to actual songs, albeit songs arrived at by his usual process of serendipitous lyric cut-ups. For another, instead of the pallid synth pads and non-descript samples of most drum'n'bass pieces, these tracks also feature real playing of real instruments, and good playing, too. Reeves Gabrels's berserk guitar break on "Looking For Satellites" pushes the envelope of acceptability to its utmost, while Mike Garson's spooky jazz piano part to "Battle For Britain (The Letter)" is a masterpiece of restraint, set as it is against a jungle rhythm and sequenced industrial noise-bites in the Nine Inch Nails manner.
Bowie's samples, too, are refreshingly obtuse by comparison with most techno and jungle acts. "Little Wonder", for instance, is probably the first single to feature marching feet and train whistles in its middle eight.
What comes through most strongly on Earthling is the way Bowie retains an obsessional interest in the sheer variety and extremity of sound. As befits a consummate poser, he is fascinated with the subtly changing fashions of pop, and how they can be manipulated to his ends. This album's jungle and techno leanings carry at appropriately breakneck speed his Cassandra- like warnings of an over-programmed, culturally homogenised future in which hyperactivity obscures the more reflective values.
Not for nothing is "Seven Years In Tibet" the calmest, most transcendent piece here; compared with, say, the muscular hardcore sensibility of "I'm Afraid of Americans", its very placidity is its message. Not that Bowie is entirely critical of modern urban activity - a substantial part of his art and his attitude comes from leaving all channels open in the American century, sucking it all in and spitting it all out. This time, he's bang on target.
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