“Earthing” is David Bowie’s 23rd studio album and was originally released on 3rd February 1997.
After releasing the epic “1. Outside” album in 1995, the original idea had been to release a new album each year up until the new millennium, continuing the concept of Nathan Adler and the “art crimes”, finally solving who the horrid murderer was with album number 5. But in typical Bowie fashion, Bowie (and Eno) soon tired of the idea and 1996 came and went without any sign of a follow-up album (that had been muted to be called “2. Contamination”).
Bowie spent much of the intervening time touring the “1. Outside” album (but never in Australia Goddammit !!). On the US leg of the tour, Nine Inch Nails opened for/with Bowie, with Trent Razor admitting a number of times of being heavily influenced by Bowie. The tour had a very hard and gritty sound (the Outside album was no light-pop record), with Bowie listening to much of the electronica and drum & bass type music that was breaking at the time (with acts such as The Prodigy, Goldie, Underworld).
Bowie on his next album wanted to capture both the sound he was creating while on tour and the drum & bass, Jungle influences that were just on the cusp of becoming mainstream. The result was the album, “Earthing“, featuring his touring band at the time (minus Carlos Alomar).
The internet was still relatively new at the time, with Bowie at the forefront with his presence on the web thanks to his pioneering website. Through the website, Bowie asked his internet fans which album title to go with, “Earthling” or “Earthlings” (I know I know, it was such a difficult and hugely vital decision). More revolutionary though was Bowie releasing the first single “Telling Lies” initially as a downloadable only single, the first prominent “mainstream” act to do so. Bowie at the time predicted that in the future, downloading music would be the norm, a predication that was generally ridiculed back in 1997.
At the time I felt a tad disappointed with the album, mainly because I loved the “1. Outside” album so so much and wanted Bowie to continue the Nathan Adler concept adventure with Eno, but also because I felt Bowie was trying here to catch up with what was currently trendy, rather than set the trends himself. My disappointments have since mellowed and I concede that “Earthling” is indeed one very fine album, with Bowie taking many of these influences and making a musical statement that was very much his own.
The band Bowie has on board here really is fantastic, led again by Reeves Gabrels and ably supported by Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey, Zack Alford and Mark Plati. Well practised having toured together for months, they collectively really rock when required but also sounded positively fresh and contemporary in the overall sound they generated.
I first bought this album at a record store in Sydney with the bloke who served me saying that this new Bowie album sounded pretty darn good. He was about 18 years old and I distinctly remember thinking that Bowie could still connect with the young’uns. Not bad for someone who had gone past the 50 years of age mark.
The album cover was quite brilliant, Bowie with red hair in his striking Alexander McQueen burnt up Union Jack coat, his back towards us as he gazes across a super bright vista of the English countryside. It’s actually one of my all-time favourite album covers.
The musical contents inside were also rather good, starting with “Little Wonder“, the second single off the album. Perhaps the most direct and obvious example of the drum & bass sound associated with the album, the track has all the frantic power and energy necessary to pull it all off. As with much of the album, the lyrics are obscure with Bowie back using the “cut-up” technique to write lyrics, but this time time with a computer program rather than a newspaper and pair of scissors. With a nod to the seven dwarfs (they all get a mention) and with a number of self references, Bowie sings with an earnest “Englishness” style that makes the listener wonder whether he’s really being serious or just having a laugh. The video accompanying the single features a spooky looking Bowie with a number of alien looking beings, including a re-incarnated Ziggy Stardust like character jumping around dingy parts of New York. Music Video.
With a backdrop of strange buzzing sounds, rhythmic “fairground” keyboards and a chugging drumbeat, “Looking For Satellites” is the clearest example of Bowie’s cut-up writing technique. With lyrics collected from apparently random satellite TV channels (“Nowhere, Shampoo, TV, Combat, Boy’s Own, Slim tie, Showdown, Can’t stop“), Bowie chants rather than sings the chorus, before the verses kick in and the blast of “SATELLITES” !! The thing is, as odd as the components might be here, it all works so perfectly together resulting in a brilliant, late-Bowie classic.
The quality continues with “Battle For Britain (The Letter)“, where we return to the album’s predominant drum ‘n’ bass sound. With obtuse, cut-up lyrics which always makes me think of Bowie reminiscing of his rainy homelands, Bowie sings the verses in an English deadpan manner while the choruses sound almost anguished in comparison. With excellent contributions of manic guitars and keyboards from Gabrels and Garson, this really is a great track. One of many undiscovered treasures in Bowie 90’s cannon of work.
“Seven Years In Tibet” is a much more sombre affair, with the quiet opening “Are you OK?, You’ve been shot in the head, And I’m holding your brains, The old woman said” as dark as anything Bowie has ever penned. The music however explodes out of the speakers with the crunching chorus line of “I praise to you, Nothing ever goes away“, making for a thoroughly thrilling, if somewhat uneasy ride. Bowie’s contempt for the plight of those in Tibet is re-enforced by the (surprisingly effective) version sung in Mandarin that Bowie released as a single in some regions. Bowie has a long history and keen interest in Buddhism, almost going for the shaven head look and lifestyle in the late 60’s. This track is yet another Bowie classic that many have never heard before.
The following track “Dead Man Walking” has a title that suggests the solemn mood continues, but the music is positively uplifting in comparison. It’s one of the more “conventional” tracks on the album, a catchy tune with the out there instrumentation more subdued. As a result, it’s not one one my favourites here, although it was selected as the album’s third single. Watch the somewhat bizarre video here directed by Floria Sigismondi (who would work with Bowie again on videos from “The Next Day” album).
“Telling Lies” has a place in history, being one of the very first downloadable tracks from a major artist. Indeed, it was the first downloaded song I ever purchased. The first single off the album, I’ve always considered this one Bowie’s best “lesser known” singles. The manner in which Bowie sings the agonised “Telling Lies” refrain is worth price of admission alone. In this post Trump world, it sadly has even more relevance today than it did back in 1997.
“The Last Thing You Should Do” is my pick of the least interesting track on the album, which if rumours were true only made it onto the album at the last minute. Again, featuring the drum ‘n’ bass / jungle sound, it’s a little pedestrian with a somewhat flat vocal performance. Bowie sounds a little bored here, which is not a usual singing style for Bowie at all.
“I’m Afraid Of Americans” however is altogether different and a definite highlight here. Co-written with Brian Eno during the “Outside” sessions, it’s a somewhat cynical and paranoiac view of the typical white, gun loving American male. It’s a real rocker of a song and was great when performed live. This was predictably a top 20 hit in Canada !! Released as the fourth and last single off the album, the video is brilliant and features NIN’s Trent Reznor (who remixed this version of song) as Johnny, the crazed American. It’s well worth a watch. Music Video.
The final track “Law (Earthlings On Fire)” is a bit of a weak affair. It features odd instrumentation and an odd vocal that reminds me in parts just a tad of “Ricochet” from “Let’s Dance”. The refrain with Bowie singing the song title is the best part here, but it only takes one so far.
Bowie would tour the album with basically the same band as recorded the album (minus Mark Plati) throughout much of the later half of 1997 (although yet again not in Australia Goddammit !!). Bowie would also perform a number of the songs during his fantastic 50th Birthday show at Madison Square Gardens.
The album was re-released in 2004 as a 2 disc version, featuring a second CD of remixed versions but sadly no new notable outtakes. I though would recommend getting this as part of the excellent value for money “David Bowie” boxed set.
Although not reaching the highs of the previous superb “1. Outside” album, overall, “Earthing” really is an excellent album with lots of wonderful, quirky highlights. As with much of his 1990’s output, it’s a sadly underrated effort and one of the often forgotten gems in the Bowie cannon.
Bowie would go on to make several more brilliant, quirky, underrated albums and a few that indeed got all the credit they deserved, but that’s a story for another day.