Bowie's return to greatness

February 11, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Over the past 15 years, David Bowie has done everything expected of a rock star -- marrying a model (Iman), acting in films (most recently in "Basquiat"), concocting massive media events (such as his recent 50th Birthday Party at Madison Square Garden) -- except make albums like the ones that made him a star in the first place.

Oh, sure, he's made some interesting music along the way, from the artful electronics of "Black Tie White Noise" to the thinking-man's metal that fleshed out his two albums with Tin Machine. He's also moved a few units, thanks to "Let's Dance" (the best-selling album of his career) and the platinum "Tonight." It's not like he's just been sitting on his back catalog all these years.

But it takes hearing his new album, "Earthling" (Virgin 42627, arriving in stores today), to realize how much has been missing from his recent work. Because barely halfway through the album's opening track, "Little Wonder," it becomes obvious just how much those last eight or nine albums have been lacking in essential Bowie-ness.

Some of it lies in the way he uses his voice, playing up the broad, cockney vowels in his self-consciously stagy delivery; some lies with the forest of electronics the song wanders through, a dense thicket of processed sound that's as inviting as it is dark and mysterious.

Mainly, though, it has to do with the fact that none of that studio gingerbread ever quite obscures the classic lines of the song itself. So even though there's more going on in "Little Wonder" than the average ear can take in at a single hearing -- jarring stop-start edits, impenetrable layers of guitar and synth, jittery percussion, shrieking bursts of distortion -- it's hard not to be drawn in by the chorus. Like so much classic Bowie, "Little Wonder" is a pop song in spite of itself.

That was the trick that made Bowie's influence inescapable for a generation of English rockers. It hardly mattered whether they took from glam-era albums like "Aladdin Sane" and "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," or drew instead from the Brian Eno-produced Berlin trilogy ("Low," "Heroes" and "The Lodger"), for the effect was the same. What Bowie taught was that hooks or attitude alone were not enough; a true rock star knew how to combine the two for maximum impact.

Attitude

"Earthling" certainly has its share of attitude. Between the artful abrasiveness of the arrangements and the sly accessibility of the writing, Bowie conveys a confidence that borders on the cocky. Not since "Scary Monsters" has he seemed so sure that the chances he was taking would pay off, or that the wave he was riding is the right one.

Certainly, he has a better sense of the prevailing trends than before. Ever one to keep up with the times, Bowie has built a large chunk of the album around the frenetic rhythms of drum 'n' bass, and it suits him. Not only do those hyped-up club beats reinforce the stylized approach to rhythm that has typified his best pop work (think "Fame," "Golden Years," "Let's Dance"), but the drum breaks -- sometimes sampled, sometimes played live by former Springsteen drummer Zachary Alford -- work well with these songs, acting as a sort of aural adrenaline beneath the arrangements' chattering sequencers and roaring guitars.

There's also a harmonic edge to the music, thanks to guitarist Reeves Gabrels and keyboardist Mike Garson. Garson was the man responsible for the jazzy dissonances of "Aladdin Sane," and he adds plenty of chordal complexity to this album as well, using the synths to conjure a demented calliope solo for the middle of "Seven Years in Tibet," and capping "Dead Man Walking" with the sort of lithe, modal piano runs associated with Herbie Hancock.

Album's teeth

Garson brings a lot of color and class to the arrangements, but it's Gabrels who gives the album its teeth. Gabrels may not have the profile of some of Bowie's earlier guitarists (think Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew), but he has more chops and imagination than any of them. His approach to the instrument is totally chameleonic. One minute, his sound is thick and crunchy, almost a parody of power guitar; a moment later, it's sonic quicksilver, all shiny and squiggly and dangerous.

Put them all together, and the results are magical. "Dead Man Walking" is a perfect example. In terms of its verse and chorus, it's classic Bowie, with a slowly arching verse that builds elegantly to its brutally catchy chorus, but what makes the track addictive is the arrangement.

It isn't just the way Garson's percolating synths lend a breathless urgency to Alford's thumpingly insistent pulse, or the way Gabrel's slippery chorus hook contrasts against the sledgehammer insistence of Gail Ann Dorsey's bassline -- it's all that and more, as the tune delivers a seemingly endless array of ear-candy. Seldom has the CD player's repeat function seemed so necessary.

But "Earthling" is packed with tracks like that. From the overdubbed harmony vocals of "Looking for Satellites" to the metal-edged funk of "I'm Afraid of Americans," the album is sure to make any old-time Bowie fan glad to have him back.

'Earthling'

To hear excerpts from David Bowie's new release, "Earthling," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6101. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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