by Andy Gill / The Independent
31st January 1997
`What comes through most strongly is the way Bowie retains an obsessional interest in the sheer variety and extremity of sound’
As the embarrassing dad from The Mary Whitehouse Experience used to say, “This has got a good beat!” But though there’s undoubtedly something slightly ridiculous about a 50-year-old chap chopping out a frisky 160bpm drum’n’bass line, as Bowie does several times on this latest album, once the temptation to sneer has passed, it has to be admitted that he makes more of the form than most jungle pioneers have so far managed.
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.