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Concept Album Corner - 'Outside' by David Bowie
As we wrap up Bowie month, I’m certain I’ve yammered on and on about how fantastic and flawless the work of old David is. I’ll try not to go into more detail than what is necessary, but just to retread some ground: Bowie was practically flawless, according to fans and critics, in the Seventies, from the sparkling romance of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars to the poignant and melancholy Berlin Trilogy with ambient wave icon Brian Eno. Sadly, though, the bigger they get, the harder they fall…
After the striking and brilliant Berlin Trilogy and the semi-success of his album Scary Monsters(And Super Creeps)(which I bring up as a small recommendation for anybody who isn’t sick of Bowie yet, as I think it succeeded where Station to Station failed), Bowie had gotten into something of a sticky situation with his manager at the time that, to make a long story short, resulted in Bowie making very little money in return for the hits he was cranking out. So Bowie switched to a new record label and released one of his best-selling albums of all time, Let’s Dance, made for the sole purpose of making hits that would, in turn, make money for Bowie…and I personally think it shows. While it isn’t his most well-known album nowadays, it does baffle me how Let’s Dance became as popular as it did, considering the strange, strange choices in musical direction, even for Bowie. He is a man who is known to change styles at the drop of a hat, but I don’t think that necessarily means everything new he did was good. The album was either too weird or maybe not weird enough for Bowie fans, but perfect filler for a new audience that, as far as I know, Bowie wasn’t entirely fond of.
From there on out, Bowie would experiment like mad with each new musical endeavor he delved into, attempting to find that spark of energy that gave him a love for making music again. The effort seemed to take a while, as fans and critics were giving Bowie reviews that ranged from fair to negative. His music was becoming exactly what I’d use to describe Station to Station: too esoteric for a mainstream audience, but too mainstream for an esoteric audience. He even made an attempt to form a new band entitled Tin Machine which…frankly, the less you know about, the better. In one of Bowie’s attempts at capturing the spark of genius throughout his lackluster songs, he decided to return to what constituted a fine chunk of his work in the 70’s: A concept album. Specifically, a Rock Opera, collaborating once again with Brian Eno and one of the most (overrated) influential names of the 90’s, Trent Reznor. This was the album that gave Bowie back his big, memorable name in rock music after so long, which is strange considering the highly involved plot of the opera: a murder mystery and musing on the nature of art. I think already, one can see the pros and cons of this piece.
1.) Leon Takes Us Outside – Rather than sticking with one character to look at for a whole album, Bowie made this rock opera to play at least six characters, the first of which being Leon Blank, an ex-convict and outsider in a place called Oxford Town, a blending of both places in London and New Jersey (Bowie will always enjoy blurring lines between England and America, won’t he?). The music starts off in a very eerie manner, avante-garde and surreal, a soft creep in as we hear soft ringing, alien noises and whirring overhead, as Leon’s voice barely speaks up over all of it. Leon begins to recite a seemingly random list of dates, read from a detective’s journal. The intentionally random recital of dates sets up the idea of what it is like to be ‘outside’, as the album puts it: On the outside, on the surface, there is little to understand, little to comprehend. Looking at these dates and these words in a detective’s book may mean nothing to us. But to him, on the inside, it’s everything. Leon is taking us outside by keeping us in the dark, by simply telling us what he knows. But why is this whole ‘outside’ idea the thesis of the album? The next track, thankfully gives us an explanation…
2.) Outside – It’s funny when one thinks about it, but as a concept album, this truly seems like the only one that has Bowie as a sort of third-person omniscient narrator, each song sung by from the perspective of a different character, by a group of characters, or in this case, a song by Bowie as narrator of the story. Instantly, one can see the ways that Bowie’s music has changed since 1976, now much more techno oriented with snappy drums and the whirring and beeping of computer-like noises, yet still keeping traces of that slow funk beat he made popular back in his golden years. The murder mystery angle of the story fits with the whole ‘outside’ theme, in that a detective’s job requires him to look at people beyond the ‘outside’, to look at every lie or distorted fact to get to the truth. Now/Not tomorrow/Yesterday/Not tomorrow. With lyrics like that, it should also be noted that this story takes place in a semi-dystopian world on the brink of a new century in 1999. The coming of a new century and, even more, a new millennium doesn’t seem to be concerning people all that much, preferring to live in the moment rather than worry about the future…at least, on the outside. The music is outside/It’s happening outside/The music is outside/It’s happening…/Now/Not tomorrow.
3.) The Hearts Filthy Lesson – Already the songs from here on out creep into Bowie’s new industrial-sound for 1995, this one starting off with a rusty whine of static before going into the chorus (It’s the hearts filthy lesson/Hearts filthy lesson), the song jumping into the groove of a sickly seductive yet ugly little number, mixed in with a mad, intimidating little piano solo in the middle. The narrator for this piece is detective Nathan Adler, supposedly the main character of the story (though that title could be reserved for Leon as well). Nathan decides to look back on his life with a former lover and ‘tyrannical futurist’ named Ramona and a more ambiguous character named Paddy, both of whom will show up on the album later on. This seems like the thoughts of a typical jaded detective come to life in the form of a song. Oh Ramona, if only there was some kind of future and I’m already five years older I’m already in my grave give off this vibe. However, Bowie’s intention was to confront his own perceptions on the ‘ritual creation and degradation of art’. While I this isn’t my initial thought, perhaps I’m just looking on the ‘outside’ a little too much. The creation of art is typically said to be born from a deep-rooted anguish that blossoms into something beautiful to behold, so that the hearts may get something out of their ‘filthy lesson’. Which, in the context of the story, may indicate that Adler is not entirely stable. Adler is a detective for Art-Crime Inc., as ‘art crime’ has become an underground phenomenon, wherein grisly, brutal murders are acted out to make art (rather interesting juxtaposition for ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’). Adler is called in as detective to decide which kind of art is acceptable and which is, in another word, trash. It’s a fascinating idea how people seem willing to let anything slide by in the name of ‘art’, as the accepted purpose of ‘art’ has become to break any kind of social taboos and help society progress by liberating them…but to what point do people push their limit?
4.) A Small Plot of Land – Bowie hasn’t entirely strayed from his avante-garde days. Remember back in my Diamond Dogs review when I said that when Bowie wasn’t making great dance songs, he made stuff like this? Well, there are quite a few songs like this one on here, the opening number included, so I warn anybody who isn’t up for that sort of thing and be cautious. This is where things get abstract. Drum and piano open us up, the drum jazzing and jiving away while the piano madly scrambles and falters all over the place like the solo from ‘Aladdin Sane’ on steroids. This song is sung by the citizens of Oxford Town, gossiping and spreading word of the newest ‘artist’ and the main villain of the piece, who makes himself known as The Minotaur. The vocals are truly bone-chilling in this one, spectral and empty as they describe a man who seems as though he isn’t even a human anymore. He is exactly what his name indicates: a murderous, deranged beast-man trapped in a grisly labyrinth (the small part of land?), waiting for his next victim. Poor dunce/He’s less than within us/The brains talk/But the will to live is gone.
5.) Segue: Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette) – One of the artsier pieces of this album is that, in between each song or so, we’re given a ‘segue’, wherein one of the major characters gives their piece, a monologue of sorts, all done by David Bowie. The first one is the Minotaur’s latest victim, fourteen-year-old ‘Baby’ Grace Blue. David Bowie’s voice is modified to sound higher and more childish, catching the stammering and slightly incoherent talk of a child almost perfectly in his speech (though the vocals may have been a bit much; he sounds more like an alien worm creature than a child). Though Grace is fourteen, her nickname came from the way she talked when on a certain drug that was given to her by Ramona that, as indicated by the recording, may have put her in an asylum. The music is mysterious and ethereal, but not suspenseful. It’s almost like something one would hear out of an episode of ‘Twin Peaks’.
6.) Hallo Spaceboy – One of the most popular hit singles off of this album and good lord, you can see why. The song opens with the growl of a firing gun, the beat loud and buzzing like a finger slamming on an electric button for an alarm. The song begins slow and booms right into the action, intense and fiery like some sort of precursor to Dubstep, only growing more and more powerful and booming as it goes along. The song’s story is a sort of interrogation scene (or, perhaps more fitting, a car chase scene) with Nathan Adler’s assistant, Paddy, and Leon Blank, the prime suspect for The Minotaur. Her insults and intimidation skills towards Leon seem to make an allusion to Bowie’s younger days of the seventies, as if Bowie is regretfully looking back on who he was when he was Ziggy, Aladdin, The Duke, and Halloween Jack. The title ‘spaceboy’ is clear enough as reference to Ziggy and Major Tom, the character of Bowie’s first big hit ‘Space Oddity’; Do you like girls or boys?/It’s so confusing these days is a somewhat direct reference to Bowie claiming to be a bisexual back then; And I want to be free/Don’t you wanna be free? could allude to the preachers of individuality and rebelliousness that were Halloween Jack and Aladdin Sane, or could allude to Bowie’s breakdown as The Thin White Duke. The only flaw I find with this song is the ending, which fades out rather anti-climactically rather than ending with a perfect finishing note. Otherwise, this has to be the best song on the album.
7.) The Motel – Cutting out from the energy and boom of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, we open the next song on, once again, an airy, somewhat spooky and somber track, accompanied by a semi-Arabian sounding melody as Bowie chimes in. In this scene, Leon is hiding away in a motel, feeling secure and safe in such a strangely dingy and ramshackle place. Even when the drums kick in, the song just has this eerie, dream-like quality to it. It’s a kind of living which recognizes/The death of the odorless man. There is a sense of tranquility in this motel for Leon as there is no big crowd of people on the outside, but a small group of solitary folk who look out for each other like a family…at least that’s what Leon believes. Soon, of course, Leon is caught, somebody kicking in the door to his room, which the lyrics signify as an ‘explosion’. Explosion falls upon deaf ears/While we’re swimming in a sea of sham. And even as the low groan and sob of guitars creep in, the song still retains the moody, lifelessness it kept from the beginning even as Leon is dragged away, as if he’s accepted his fate.
8.) I Have Not Been To Oxford Town – Once again, we follow Leon as he is fully accepting of his fate, being sentenced to prison for the murder of Baby Grace and being convicted as The Minotaur. However, the song seems oddly upbeat and pleasant for such an occasion, as if now Leon is not only accepting his fate, he’s simply going through the motions, which makes sense given that he’s a recent ex-convict. He attempts to make his alibi But I have not been to Oxford Town! where the murder took place. The chorus behind him simply sing All’s Well, as if to cool him down and pretend to see his side throughout the song, even though they keep him in jail anyway. The prison priests seem decent/My attorney is sincere/I fear my days are numbered/Lord, get me out of here. It’s implied that Ramona and Leon have a strong connection somehow in this song as well, as Leon regrets that If I had not met Ramona…Bowie is very fond of musical dissonance with his lyrics, though I think it’s more off-putting than it is a ‘unique match’ sort of thing.
9.) No Control – The tone of this song is instantly edgy, snappy and mysterious as it explains the credo, so to speak, of private eyes and detectives, at least from the point of view of Nathan Adler. The world is a massive chaotic thing that will toss you aside if it deems you unimportant or make every attempt to ruin you if you contribute to it. One truly has no control over their fate and, as Nathan Adler sees it, it’s all deranged. I should live my life on bended knee/If I can’t control my destiny/No control I can’t believe I’ve no control/It’s all deranged. Pay careful attention to the use of the word ‘deranged’ in this song because, I promise, it comes back in the album with a vengeance later on.
10.) Segue: Algeria Touchshriek – We cut to another segue, Bowie cockneying up his accent and making it sound significantly older. Another suspect wrapped up in the murder of Baby Grace, Mr. Touchshriek seems to be dodging around Adler’s questions, rambling on about his lonely and pathetic lifestyle, musing on how he is ‘a broken man’, wishing for the company of fellow broken men. The sound of this one is also somewhat off and eerie, but oddly tranquil. What he has in relation to the other characters, though, is a mystery to me that, I suppose, won’t be solved…
11.) The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty) – Funk guitar and twinkling, starry piano sprint into the next song as Bowie finally lets us into the mindset of our villain, The Minotaur. At once, the lyrics are disturbing and hallucinatory, Bowie’s voice breaking and cracking every time he howls out I SHAKE! The overall logic and meaning behind this song both allude me, and, to be blunt, I wouldn’t call this one of the more interesting songs, which is rather disappointing as this is meant to be the song that introduces us to The Minotaur, a serial killer who happens to be an artist! Sadly, Bowie has written far better songs than this one.
12.) Segue: Ramona A. Stone/I Am With Name – As we near the climax of the album, we get one more little interview with Ramona A. Stone, a former fling of Nathan Adler’s and an artist-turned-art dealer, selling the wildest pieces of body art, and now particularly fascinated with the work of The Minotaur, whoever he may be. Since Ramona is the one who’d drugged Baby Grace, we’re lead to believe that she had a huge helping hand in The Minotaur’s work. The music is no longer serenely weird, but now suspenseful and otherworldly, Ramona’s own voice alien and nasally, accentuating her odd, arguably pretentious characteristics. This is also the only ‘segue’ that morphs into song, the ‘I Am With Name’ section, which might be Ramona backing up her ‘innocent’ case with witnesses and names.
13.) Wishful Beginnings – Here, we are given another look into The Minotaur’s deranged mind, and probably the better one to start off with. The song is quiet, nearly-dead silent save for the cricket-chirp of a drum beat that devolves into twanging and throaty frog calls. The lyrics seem to express regret and mourning, looking back on the titular wishful beginnings that The Minotaur and his victim had, who could possibly be Baby Grace, still kept alive…but just barely. The pain must feel like snow/There you go/There you go. The song shows a serial killer in mourning, but becomes that much creepier because of it. It’s like watching the somewhat infamous scene of the 1930’s Frankenstein film where Frankenstein is playing with a little girl. I’ve always held a longstanding belief that there is an inherent sympathy and fear that humans have toward the deformed and the insane. This song is the embodiment of that idea.
14.) We Prick You – Another chorus song, sung by the entire Court of Justice as each suspect is brought to the jury, Leon, Ramona, and Algeria. The phrase ‘We prick you’ acts as a play on words of ‘we pick you’, of course, but the ‘prick’ aspect makes me think of the Court taking a needle and looking into the character’s minds so that they Tell the truth/Tell the truth/Tell the truth/We prick you we prick you we prick you. Riots and violent revolutions are being caused by all of this mess, as it often does with this sort of thing. In anger and panic, the court acts in a sneering, ugly manner towards the suspects. I wouldn’t say this is one of the better songs musically, as it sounds a little too much like an 8-bit video game soundtrack is going off in the background and the Court of Justice is just singing over it.
15.) Segue: Nathan Adler – Finally, Nathan gets to say his piece, the guitar rhythm snappy and quick, once again adding to the sly detective style to Adler. Bowie alters his speaking voice not only to become low enough to be confused for a Leonard Cohen impersonation, but also speaks in a rather cartoonish “New Joysey” accent. Adler goes over his thoughts on each suspect, ruling each one out as if to defend all of them. In the next song, an astonishing revelation comes about that, in any other detective/mystery/thriller story today, is one of the most clichéd things I’ve heard…
16.) I’m Deranged – Though it isn’t explicitly stated, I think it’s pretty apparent that the song shows that Nathan Adler himself is The Minotaur here (the liner notes say that this song is sung by The Minotaur and there have been no other characters who have sung about ‘derangement’). Cliché aside, this is my second favorite song easily and was my favorite for the longest time until I really gave ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ a thorough listening. The beat is fast and of the highest energy, a wavering ghostly tune carrying Bowie’s vocals in a passionate manner, both melancholy and terrifying. If the insane were given a pop song, this could be it. I have few complaints to give this song, aside from story purposes. But I’ll explain why I won’t talk about that later on…
17.) Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes – Leon is released from prison finally as Nathan has revealed who The Minotaur is (…I think). Naturally, the song is upbeat for Leon once more, but peaceful, like a 90’s cover of a Beatles song. Leon looks at the world ‘outside’ once more and admires what he’d been missing during the eve of the new century, looking at buildings and the hopes of the new future Thru’ these architects eyes. Yet still, regret for a lover who won’t accept the modest way he lives drives on through the song, but Leon still strides the streets, happy to be a free man again and to live life once more.
18.) Segue: Nathan Adler – Once more, Adler rears his head into the scene and gives a much shorter monologue, confirming that Ramona and Leon were with each other for a small period of time, the relationship now split off. There’s…truly nothing more to say about this one. This track, I think, is a perfect example of the major flaw of Outside, which I’ll rant about after the final song.
19.) Strangers When We Meet – One final song by The Minotaur and, again, one of the more popular songs off this album. The reason for this being so, I think, is because this song is vastly different from every other song on this album. In fact, this song is prototypical David Bowie, almost torn straight from the age where Bowie was just getting off of his Thin White Duke craze. In fact, this song sounds uncannily similar to the song ‘Heroes’ from The Berlin Trilogy. The lyrics, too, seem to be classic David Bowie, thought-provoking enough when you actually listen to them, but beautifully descriptive and simple on their own. The lyrics express the bittersweet afterthoughts of The Minotaur as he is supposedly captured, thinking back to every other person he has met in his life and pondering how good and how awful it must be to look at the ‘outside’. On the one hand, since we all see each other only on the ‘outside’, we can’t easily relate to one another. None of us share the exact same feelings as each other, none of us share the exact same thoughts. Sure, there are groups of people who feel ‘love’ and ‘hatred’, but each feeling for each person is different, even in just the slightest, most specific form. Yet still, there’s a beauty in others not seeing you on the ‘inside’ and not seeing the ‘inside’ of others. For the former, The Minotaur and his alter ego Nathan can avoid being judged for their difference and their thoughts. Likewise, finding out each new facet of a person as time goes along is all the more exciting and enjoyable with every day, seeing something new out of somebody every day. In that sense, we are all ‘Strangers When We Meet’ and still strangers afterwards…Or I could be pulling this long-winded pretentious explanation out of my rear and it’s simpler than I’m making it out to be.
This is a confusing, confusing little album. Bowie is obviously an extremely intelligent individual, far more so than the likes of me obviously, but that sort of becomes a downfall here, especially towards the latter half of the album. ‘Outside’, it doesn’t seem like Bowie has really mastered the art of a cohesive narrative, or rather tosses it aside in the pursuit of making ‘art’, exactly like his own villainous Minotaur: sacrificing story logic and coherency to make a frail, disjointed imitation of story logic and coherency, turning it into ‘art’. I wouldn’t normally complain, but the format of a murder mystery is something that works best with a cohesive, easy to understand narrative. Even more bizarre thrillers like Memento and Shutter Island have a sense of a fluid storytelling; the audience is easily able to pick up on something in these two works even for as strange and surreal as they get. Here, it’s the exact problem that Bowie had throughout the nineties: too strange for a normal audience, and to normal for a strange audience. As a person who studies the art of storytelling and the art of fiction writing like my life depends on it, I picked up on several narrative flaws in this work that just irritate me to no end (meaningless segue portions, lack of overall clarity). But while I would complain about them in length, Bowie obviously wasn’t going for narrative here, so I suppose I can excuse that complaint. Bowie is obviously onto something that none of us are getting, but that’s the problem: none of us are getting it. Bowie may prefer audience interpretation over artistic intention, but it’s hard to be interpretive here when there is already a story to this. There’s not a lot of free reign for me in that regard when I need to describe the story as accurately as I can interpret it (sadly, I’m not even certain if I did. Bowie released a short story version of Outside in the form of Nathan Adler’s diary. If you can figure this out better than I can, I will accept anything you’ll want to correct me on: http://hem.bredband.net/stuabr/diary.htm).
This seems very much like an album that is style over substance. However, as far as style goes…it’s still pretty damn good style. Again, while Outside is a hit or miss album when it comes to it’s songs, the stuff that does hit really hits. The lyrics can be slick, sly, subtle, terrifying, beautifully descriptive, and even a bit funny (in a satirical sense, of course). As with anything, Bowie always gets a few basic ideas across to his audience that are always fascinating, and this has some of his most fascinating stuff yet: art crime, murder mystery, human connection, etc. And if anything, Bowie practically mastered the popular growing Neo-Noir fad of the nineties. Clarity is not the album’s strong-suit, but style is. If only for a couple of songs, give them a go.