In the 1990’s I’m not sure how many people cared about the new music that David Bowie was releasing. Every fan I meet looks at me blankly when I talk about the albums from this era so feverishly. Scanning each “best of” available you won’t see a lot of the songs from this era well represented and it seems like some of the most underground albums in his entire discography. When I say underground I don’t mean that he became an “unknown” but he certainly was a corporate ghost to the mainstream culture. It was a period in time however where we saw a lot of the alternative nation bands and other artists like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson preach the gospel of David Bowie. In a weird way that is the feel of the three albums released during this period of time. Bowie managed to muse on the modern and deliver it in his own unique vision with some truly triumphant results. Over the course of three flawless records Bowie again re-invented and pushed the boundaries of his established sound. After a more “middle of the road” and safer sounding 1980’s, Bowie started to regain some new sonic territory that showed a new generation how relevant he still was and proved to the old school fans just how important he had always been.
The three albums released during this period of time are as follows:
Black Tie White Noise
Each album is unique in its own way and thematically there is no link like the Berlin era. What I like most about this era though is Bowie’s engagement with the modern. Although you don’t hear that as much on “Black Tie White Noise” you do hear it quite loudly on “Outside” and “Earthling” which both fit in perfectly to the alternative and industrial sounds of the era. The biggest difference of course is the absence of angst (a hallmark but not a necessity of the alternative nation) and in its place, pure rock n roll sophistication. The sounds heard on “Black Tie White Noise” are more in line with funk and soul music. It’s got a Dance Music feel in the way that all those great bands from the Manchester scene demonstrated but it is still an excursion in rock n roll.
So let me break it down for you:
Black Tie White Noise
This album really is a phantom when it comes to the David Bowie discography. I rarely meet people who are even aware of it and it feels like it flies quite far under the radar in terms of Bowie’s history. I personally love it and I list it in my favourite eleven David Bowie albums of all time. I think what makes it sound so great is just how big and lush the album is. A lot of different arrangements going on and it showcases a killer dark edge to all of the sunny Soul soaked movements. Bowie is in full crooner mood and I love when he croons, but it isn’t in a drab and melancholy way. This isn’t a ballads album; it is still very urgent and rhythmic. What you hear is Bowie escaping the sound of the 80’s and in a bizarre way embracing the future. I think it is the funk and dance rhythms that link this heavily to the kind of noises that dominated 1990’s alternative culture. I still feel like it is Bowie almost paying tribute to the sound bands like The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays made. I even get a Primal Scream vibe from this album. I think where this album separates from the sound of those bands though is the way it still stays true to the pop song format. Re-listening to this album for the purpose of writing this I am once again plugged into how this album also has a whole bunch of dub and reggae pulsating underneath the rock n roll execution. It is such a joyful album to experience and sounds great on a pair of headphones when you are walking aimlessly around the city streets looking for escape but content to just to be outside and indulging in oxygen and sunshine.
There is no argument; this is my third favourite David Bowie album. What a mindfuck of a record this album is. When all the kids freaking out on “The Downward Spiral” and “The Fragile” by Nine Inch Nails or anything by Marilyn Manson grow up this should be the first album they purchase. I guess the reason why I say this is because I hear this album as a way more mature and sophisticated take on the kind of noise that Reznor and Warner made. The album itself is a concept record and in the spirit of concept records cannot be isolated into individual tracks. It needs to be experienced as one whole movement of music. I believe this album to be some of Bowie’s darkest and most adventurous music ever. It doesn’t drag or plod, it plays out beautifully with every beginning, middle and end illustrated with an emotional intensity that Bowie’s younger peers at the time were unable to reach. Although the story here is a work of fiction you can feel that Bowie really embodied every inch of the characters he’s singing about. One of the key ingredients to this album sounding the way it does is the production of Brian Eno. Bowie and Eno had not worked together since the Berlin Trilogy which explains why it carries the same spirit as that era of his career. This album provides repeat enjoyment over and over again and needs to be consumed alone. My advice, when you finish freaking out on the sounds of youth, I believe that you should ride that downward spiral directly to “Outside” because you can’t beat the real thing.
Much like “Outside” Bowie’s third 1990’s album “Earthling” is one I favour quite a bit. This album is a pure electronic experience with that amazing Bowie magic scattered throughout it. It’s also got one of his best songs, the amazing “Little Wonder” which is just a million levels of blissed awesome. There is such an explosive quality to this song. The rest of the album follows a similar template to this song and when you listen to the whole album it becomes clear just how much influence Bowie was taking from Trent Reznor. Although the album carries all those hallmarks of NIN’s brand of industrial rock it still has that Bowie sonic dialogue pulsating underneath it. That sunny pop optimism gives new context to the industrial paranoia. Overall I love it and place it quite highly on my list of favourite Bowie records. There is a lot to love about it and for anyone looking to escape teen angst and graduate to something a bit more sophisticated, this would be the perfect album to buy.
These are the next series of albums that I would recommend any new David Bowie fan to buy because much like the Berlin Trilogy these albums are intense listens. They don’t deliver you the hit factory stuff that the best of’s do and that for me is the best part. You get to see an aging rocker relate to the modern landscape with his level of experience and in the process not only re-invent his sound but also introduce some new noise to the landscape. David Bowie was always a rock n roll outsider so it makes sense that in the era of the alternative nation that he plugs in, relates and delivers us a series of albums with a bit more wisdom as opposed to angst. It was a glorious era and you’d be foolish not to investigate all that is on offer with these three albums.
Big Love xo
By Dan Newton