“1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle)” is David Bowie’s 22nd studio album, originally released on 25th September 1995.
By 1994, Bowie was in a good place. He was happily married to Iman and got his musical mojo back following the commercial success of “Black Tie White Noise” and the artistic satisfaction that was his “The Buddha of Suburbia” explorations, both from 1993.
After meeting up again with old friend Brian Eno, they decided it was time for them to collaborate again, it having been 16 years since they last worked together on 1979’s “Lodger” album. Bowie was in the mood to record something a little radical again and of course, Brian Eno was always in that frame of mind.
To research the new project, they both visited the Gugging psychiatric hospital near Vienna, Austria and interviewed a number of the patients who were involved in the “Outsider” art movement. Bowie then wrote a short story, based on a pretend diary he was keeping called “The diary of Nathan Adler or the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle.” It tells the sordid story of a dystopian vision of upcoming 1999 in which a new series of crimes were taking place called “Art Crimes”. People were being kidnapped, murdered and their dismembered bodies displayed as bizarre, horrific works of art. The main character on whom the diary was based was Nathan Adler, an art-crime detective on the trail of a serial murder who’s latest victim was a poor 14 year old girl called Baby Grace Blue. With a list of possible suspects, including the probably framed but still main suspect Leon Blank, we are taken on a confused exploration of this nightmarish, futuristic who done it.
The locations have English names such as London and Oxford, but the short story refers to their North American counterparts in Ontario, Canada and New Jersey USA, giving an overall blurred sense of reality.
Without having any real songs developed, Bowie and Eno gathered a team of exceptionally talented musicians to start jamming and bring together musically these various themes. These included the wonderfully eccentric Reeves Gabrels on lead guitar (from his Tin Machine period), the ever reliable Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar (only survivor from Bowie’s 70’s period when Bowie previously worked with Eno), Erdal Kızılçay on bass and keyboards (who worked with Bowie on both the “Never Let Me Down” and “Black Tie White Noise” albums), Mike Garson on piano (who worked with Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust through to Plastic Soul periods before rejoining the fray again on the previous “The Buddha of Suburbia” album) and who gives the whole album a wonderful vibe and the rather excellent Sterling Campell on drums (who first featured on the “Black Tie White Noise” album and would feature throughout much of Bowie’s remaining years).
In charge of production was Bowie, Eno (for the first time while working with Bowie) and David Richards who first worked with Bowie on Iggy Pop’s wonderful “Blah Blah Blah” album and then co-produced both the “Never Let Me Down” and “The Buddha of Suburbia” albums.
The sessions (initially anyways) consisted mostly of jam sessions, where Eno and Bowie encouraged improvisations through the use of Eno’s famous Oblique Strategy cards where musicians were asked to play as if certain characters or with specific emotions. Lyrically, Bowie would also improvise and return to his well known “cut-up” writing method, but instead of randomising bits of newspaper, magazine or diaries would use a new computer program called the “Verbasizer” to generate random words and phrases for inspiration.
The initial sessions at the Mountain Studios, Montreux were incredible productive, with something like 40 odd tracks developed to various stages of completion. Subsequent recording sessions at the Hit Factory Studios in New York helped to redefine the album with a few more of the accessible tracks (such as “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town“). There has never been an album in which Bowie had so much recorded material available from which to choose.
As with most of Bowie’s so-called “concept albums” (such as Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs), although there’s a thread that ties many of the songs together, there is no clear narrative here, but a collection of indeed non-linear songs and spoken narrative pieces that come from the same surreal universe. Each piece is sung or spoken from the perspective of the characters from the story but it’s a real stretch to say there’s any coherent story as such. “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Sound of Music” this most definitely is not…
The album opens with “Leon Takes Us Outside“, a short atmospheric piece, with Leon Blank, the prime art-murder suspect, going through a diary and reading out various dates and public holidays as if trying to work out where he was during the following sequence of events.
The music really kicks in with the catchy “Outside“, a track listed as being the album’s “prologue”. Co-written with Kevin Armstrong (a guitarist who’s worked with Bowie on/off since the 1985 Live Aid concert, including as an unofficial 5th member of Tin Machine), it indeed originally dates back as a Tin Machine reject called “Now”. Kevin doesn’t play on this track but he does make a guest appearance on “Thru’ These Architects Eyes“. Campbell on drums is especially good here and with Gabrels screechy guitar and Eno’s electronic soundscapes, sets the mood for what’s to come. Bowie’s vocals are as excellent as always, this time sounding slightly unattached as he laments “The crazed in the hot-zone, The mental and diva’s hands, The fisting of life, To the music outside“. A bright start indeed.
“The Hearts Filthy Lesson” is an absolute killer track that dampens the mood considerably. Kızılçay powerful bass dominates with again Gabrels guitar a highlight, as are all the wonderful piano flourishes by Garson. It has a brilliant, industrial style groove that drives the whole track and Bowie (as the Detective Nathan Adler character) introduces us to a number of characters in Paddy (his off-sider) and the somewhat sinister and scary Ramona A. Stone. Bowie sings with a mixture of sorrowfulness and tight anguish (“Heart’s filthy lesson, Falls upon deaf ears” and “I’m already five years older, I’m already in my grave“) as he ponders the case in front of him. One of many many highlights. This was selected as the lead off single, although it’s dark themes made it a less than commercial choice, reaching only No. 35 in the UK charts and just making the US charts at No. 92. The song would have a wider audience when it closed the fantastic movie “Seven” in which it’s dark themes perfectly matches those of both this song and album. Watch the visually disturbing but brilliant video here.
“A Small Plot of Land” is another wonderful treasure. Starting with a hypnotic drum pattern and Garson’s dancing piano, it just slowly builds and builds with Bowie’s eerie vocals (sung from the perspective of the residents of Oxford, New Jersey) lamenting the latest art murder victim (“Poor soul, He never knew what hit him and it hit him so“). Gabrel’s guitar solo is another highlight, taking us back to the sounds from the “Lodger” period. It’s just a fabulous track that Bowie would only play live during the following “Outside” tour.
Next comes the first of the spoken segue passages in “Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)” that many found irritating but I’ve always thought added another interesting element to the whole album. As eerie soundscapes play in the background, we hear Bowie play the part of the terrified 14 year old Baby Grace Blue via a recording of her last moments before being so viciously murdered. It’s all gruesome stuff but Bowie’s altered vocals gives it a mildly comedic touch.
Things fade before bouncing back again with another of the album’s highlights, the superb “Hallo Spaceboy“. With Sterling pounding drums, Gabrels driving guitar and little Eno flourishes, Bowie sings from the perspective of Paddy as he’s forced to release his suspect. The line “Do you like girls or boys, It’s confusing these days” is of course classic Bowie. Bowie once described the track as Jim Morrison/The Doors playing industrial, heavy metal and that kinda describes things perfectly. It’s really is all rather brilliant. Now I don’t usually go for remixed versions which were the rage at the time (every track seems to have something like 5 different remixed versions), but when released as the third single, Bowie got The Pet Shop Boys to basically re-record and remix the track and I have to say they did a brilliant job, with it being quite different but every bit as good as the original. They also added some additional lyrics “Ground to Major, bye bye Tom, Dead the circuit, countdown’s wrong, Planet Earth, is control on?” which brings the whole piece back to Space Oddity. A latter day Bowie classic, see the excellent video here.
The high standard continues with the moody, atmospheric masterpiece that is the “The Motel“. As with many of Bowie’s best tracks, it starts slowly and gently builds up until it reaches it’s thrilling crescendo. Garson is particularly good here, but Eno deserves much credit for the eeriness he manages to achieve. Sung from the perspective of the lamenting luckless suspect Leon Blank (“It’s a kind of living which recognizes, The death of the odorless man, When nothing is vanity nothing’s too slow, It’s not Eden but it’s no sham“) things really takeoff as Blank screams “And there’s no more of me exploding you, Re-exposing you, Like everybody do, Re-exploding you“, while Gabrel’s guitar goes off the scale. Yes, Blank has done some silly things previously, but he’s not guilty of this particularly nasty crime. The tracks then goes all quieter again as it slowly fades away. This would be a key highlight of many a live Bowie concert.
Next comes perhaps the most “poppy”, catchy track off the album “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town“. With a wonderfully contagious bass-line, Alomar’s rhythm guitar and it’s beautifully half-spoken bridges, this is yet another of those Bowie gems that’s worth price of admission alone. Again from the perspective of Leon Blank, he sets the scene (“Baby Grace is the victim, She was 14 years of age, And the wheels are turning, turning, For the finger points at me“), while wrongfully imprisoned in that he hasn’t even been to the scene of the hideous crime (“But I have not been to Oxford Town“). This I think would have made a much stronger lead-off single, but who am I to know any better…
“No Control” again leads with a catchy rhythm and weird little keyboard soundscapes as Detective Nathan Adler laments how everything is beyond his control (“Don’t tell God your plans, It’s all deranged, No control“) as he struggles with the case. Bowie’s vocals are again wonderful here and the overall vibe is one in which pop meets a much harder industrial-rock feel.
We next have another segue in which we meet the old, solitary, sad, pathetic “Algeria Touchshriek“, the shop keeper of underground goods and substances. Bowie is at his most hysterical here with a distorted older man’s voice that’s hard to take too seriously, although it’s clear this pervert is a possible suspect in all the wrong doings (“I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop, To a Mr. Walloff Domburg, A reject from the world wide Internet, He’s a broken man, I’m also a broken man“).
“The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)” is yet another highlight (yes, there are a lot of them in this album). With another catchy, driving, pulsing rhythm and brilliant vocal performance by Bowie, we’re introduced to the menacing, mysterious Artist/Minotaur character who did the evil deed (“The screw, Is a tightening Atrocity, I shake, For the reeking flesh, Is as romantic as hell“). The outro is just wonderful as the music builds up and Bowie’s distorted vocals wail “Call it a day, today… t t“.
We next finally meet the sinister Ramona A. Stone who has been previously mentioned a number of times in the “Ramona A. Stone/I Am with Name” segue. Bowie’s spoken vocals are wonderfully spooky here merging seamlessly with the “I Am with Name” portion being an actual “song” with a thumping drum and all sorts of weird musical flourishes in the background.
“Wishful Beginnings” is certainly uncomfortable listening and the most spookiest track on the album. With a repeating loop of drums and evil cackle laugh, it’s musically the least interesting contained within. Bowie’s sad, apologetic vocal as the Artist/Minotaur commits the murder (“The pain must feel like snow, I’m no longer your golden boy, Sorry little girl“) makes it an even harder listen. For me, this is the weakest moment on the album and it’s interesting that it’s been left out on a number of the subsequent re-releases. As far as I know, it has never been played live and is definitely NOT a dance floor filler…
“We Prick You” picks things up nicely again, with this marvelously contagious track thanks to it’s fast paced rhythms and Eno inspired soundscapes. This is one of my favourite Bowie vocals on the album, with some lovely little touches throughout such as when the backup vocals chime in with “I wish you’d tell, I wish you’d tell“. Sung from the perspective of the Members of the Court of Justice, they’re basically giving Leon Blank a hard time during his trial and demand the truth or else (“Tell the truth, We prick you we prick you we prick you“). Put this one down on the Bowie/Eno list of gems.
“Nathan Adler” (segue 1) is a short little spoken piece with Bowie doing his best Humphrey Bogart impression as Detective Nathan Adler as he ponders who might be the murderer. With a basic little rhythm in the background, it’s perhaps the most dispensable moment on the album.
“I’m Deranged” is the Artist/Minotaur character admitting all this nastiness is happening basically because they’re a deranged monster (“And the rain sets in, It’s the angel-man, I’m deranged“). As with previous Bowie’s musings, the subject of insanity and derangement often reoccurs. Musically, the backdrop is again another fast rhythm piece with Eno’s soundscapes and Garson’s tinkering piano piecing the whole thing together. Bowie’s lamenting vocals are as beautiful and chilling as ever on the album.
“Thru’ These Architects Eyes” right near the end of the album is for me THE highlight. Musically, it has every possible ingredient for a Bowie classic, a wonderfully powerful rhythm, a catchy chorus, some magical musical soundscapes thanks to Eno and Garson’s piano, some great guitar work and a cryptic, thought provoking lyric. And of course a superb Bowie vocal performance. Sung nominally as Leon Blank, it doesn’t quite play I think into the album narrative but with lines such as “Cold winter bleeds, On the girders of Babel, This stone boy watching the crawling land, Rings of flesh and the towers of iron, The steaming caves and the rocks and the sand“, who cares really. I’m not entirely sure what my Top 20 Bowie tracks are but I would be mightily surprised if this isn’t one of them.
The second short “Nathan Adler” segue has the detective lamenting the relationship between Ramona and Leon. OK, perhaps this might be the most dispensable moment on the album,
“Strangers When We Meet” finishes the album and comes as a bit of a surprise as it’s simply a re-recording of the track found on the previous “The Buddha of Suburbia” album. Although I think it’s a vastly improved version, it comes across as a little unnecessary and again doesn’t really fit into the album narrative. Although supposedly from the perspective of Leon Blank, I’ve always viewed this as simply Leon doing a Bowie cover while trapped in prison. I can only think Bowie must have really have liked this track and found it frustrating that not many would have listened to it and was keen for it to be more widely heard. Even more so as it was chosen as the second single off the album, an odd choice as either “I’ve Not Been To Oxford Town” or “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” would have been stronger choices. It only managed to reach No. 39 on the UK charts, watch the video here.
The album cover features a recent self-portrait called “The DHead – Outside” painted in 1995. Bowie was starting to get quite serious about his paintings and this was one of a series of 6 self-portraits he made at around this time. The CD packaging came with a series of bizarre images of Bowie (often barely recognisable) as the various characters from the album, along with liner-notes detailing the short-story written by Bowie of the “non-linear” plot.
This album is beyond doubt a latter day Bowie masterpiece and the album which really does deserve the distinction of being his best since the “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” album (often considered by many as his last true great album).
The final result was an album simply jam packed full of ideas, both musically and lyrically, even though at nearly 75 minutes long it was Bowie’s longest studio album by far. At the time, it was only released on CD format, had it been released on vinyl it would easily have been a double-album. Bowie was at his very best, creating music that stretched the boundaries artistically but had enough commercial appeal to be more than just niche value.
The music critics at the time had a hard job making sense of it all and gave the album mixed reviews. Many saw it as a return to form by Bowie but generally considered it all a little long, with many of the segue pieces in particular as unnecessary or overly pretentious. While I understand that narrative, I in the main disagree. I see this as somewhat like The Beatles “White” album, in that yes there are bits better than others but it just works as a wide collection of different, often unusual musical pieces. As not unusual with Bowie, more people have come on board since it’s original release and is now more often given the recognition it so richly deserves.
Bowie toured the album between September 1995 through to February 1996, but only included dates in North America and Europe (sadly it never came to Australia, I’m still not entirely over the disappointment). In North America, Bowie toured with NIN, Trent Neznor being a huge Bowie fan. It was a perfect fit, with the Outside album having a very NIN, industrial rock vibe to it all. NIN opened the show with a set, then shared the stage with Bowie where they played a number of songs together (often “Subterraneans”, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, “Reptile”, “Hallo Spaceboy” and “Hurt”), before Bowie performed his solo set. Seriously how good would that have been !! Although sadly there was no official releases of these shows, there were a number of excellent “unofficial” releases from this period.
Over the years, there have been a number of versions and re-releases of the album. The Japanese release included a bonus track that was subsequently included in other re-releases:
“Get Real” is a decent enough track, with a much more pop vibe than found on most of the album. With a hooky chorus (“I’m scared to touch, too tense to be undone, I walk the streets not expecting morning sun“), it belongs more I think on previous albums such as “Black Tie White Noise” than on here. It’s hard to imagine where it would fit within the construct of the final Outside album.
The following year (1996), “1. Outside Version 2” was released, with the track “Wishful Beginnings” replaced at the end with the Pet Shop Boys version of “Hallo Spaceboy”. It also contained a second CD of bonus tracks consisting of mainly various live versions.
I would recommend trying to get hold of the excellent if unimaginatively titled “David Bowie” box set released originally in 2007 which contains expanded versions of all the Bowie albums released by Sony (Outside, Earthling, Hours, Heathen and Reality). The Outside set includes an extra CD full of various remixed track versions as well as “Get Real” and another unreleased track from the Outside sessions:
“Nothing to Be Desired” is more of a chant than a song, with a driving rhythm plugging away as Bowie’s vari-speed vocals chants away in the main with “Mind changing“. This very much has a feel with the rest of album, with Leon struggling with the effects of drugs in his system (or so I’ve always felt).
Bowie had originally planned for Outside to be the first of a series of albums he was to release with Eno up to the new millennium (hence the title “1. Outside“). The follow-up album was rumoured to be called “2. Contamination“, with enough spare material already recorded to further expand and explore the Nathan Alder universe. However, 1996 came and went and it eventually became obvious that Bowie (and Eno) had sadly abandoned the project when in 1997 Bowie released his new album “Earthling” that contained no Eno and no art-ritual murders. It was a big ask for Bowie, who is notorious for getting bored quickly, to commit to a 5 year project.
I know I’ve said this a number of times in my album reviews, but I do consider “1. Outside” to be Bowie’s genuinely most under-rated album, perhaps buried under the weight of the story and overall concepts. Although the album sold respectably, especially considering its somewhat dark and bizarre content (reaching No. 8 in the UK and No. 21 in the US), I’ve always felt it’s never received the true recognition it deserves. That being a true Bowie masterpiece that contains so many ideas and so many incredible pieces of music, that the overall concepts become almost irrelevant. It’s a magical, wild 75 minute ride that is among the best work Bowie has ever produced. It’s an album which I have never tired of listening from start to finish.
Bowie has always been interested in writing albums that are more than just a collection of songs. Some of Bowie’s very best works are those where there’s a strong thread or concept or surreal story-line that ties the whole piece together. I’ll mention some of these albums later, but that’s a story for another day.
Best Tracks: “Thru’ These Architects Eyes“, “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town“, “Hallo Spaceboy“.