If there was any doubt which artist made the biggest impression on the David Bowie/Nine Inch Nails tour, Bowie's new album offers a clue. Nearly every song on Earthling gets its charge from the kind of loud, industrial power riffs and electronically treated vocals that Trent Reznor is so fond of. Bowie may have been the headliner of 1995's dream billing, but like most of the fans who went to the shows, it seems he was there primarily to catch the opening act.
was an ambitious mix of futuristic conceptualizing and industrial mayhem, but it went way over the top artistically. On that album, Bowie and collaborator Brian Eno bogged down the songs with a forced story line. What Outside
needed was some of the musical restraint and pop smarts that Reznor gave to Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral.
And that's exactly what Bowie brings to the new record, his best since 1980's Scary Monsters.
On Earthling, Bowie lets the songs tell the story. Gone are the spoken interludes and overblown avant-garde flourishes that marred Outside; instead, the tracks on Earthling are linked only by the power of the turbocharged guitars, the energy and intensity of the skittering drum-and-bass rhythms, the spiritual-technological tug of war in the lyrics and Bowie's signature baritone croon.
Bowie begins Earthling, his first self-produced album since 1974's Diamond Dogs, with an explosion of clattering beats and screeching electronics that coalesce into the album's dramatic single, "Little Wonder." He uses drum-and-bass music the current rage among British techno DJs as a rhythmic foundation throughout, upping the intensity of songs like "Telling Lies" and the classic Man Who Sold the World vibe of "Battle for Britain (The Letter)." Bowie reaches back to his '70s catalog for several tracks including the slow-grooving, horns- and Hammond-fueled "Seven Years in Tibet" but also borrows licks and samples from other spots on the musical map. A jerky, atonal piano break in the middle of "Battle" sounds like John Cage filtered through Mott the Hoople, "Little Wonder" lifts a bass line from the O'Jays; and the refrain of "Seven Years" gets the juices flowing with a blast of Pixies-like loud-soft dynamics.
If Bowie undermined his ominous warnings of a technological future gone haywire on Outside with a trite, sci-noir plot line, he comes off more convincingly this time. On Earthling he returns to the subject of space, a fascination for Bowie since 1969's "Space Oddity." In the shuffling, carnivallike "Looking for Satellites," he sings, "There's something in the sky/Shining in the light/Spinning far away," before his voice conjures up the ghost of John Lennon in the final line, "Who do we look to now?" What remains from Outside are Bowie's attempts to reconc