Review Summary: Death as art.1. Outside
is not only the most ambitious album David Bowie released in the nineties, but one of the most challenging and avant-garde projects of his entire career. Reuniting with Brian Eno, whose last collaboration with the chameleon was on Lodger
back in 1979; plus the addition of a few other key figures from Bowie’s past (namely, Mike Garson on piano and Carlos Alomar on guitar) to his mid nineties roster signalled that something was up.
All that was needed was something to push these talented tradesmen to their limits; to craft an album that could proudly sit alongside Bowie’s seventies masterpieces. It was ultimately found with the idea of building Outside
around a central theme and concept: death as art. The plan was to create a grim, textural landscape, evocative of a fictional Cluedo-esque town rife with knife-to-neck action. It was initially conceived to stretch over 3 hours on a triple disc mega-album, apparently to be continued on 4 more similarly conceptual records that would take Bowie up to the new millennium. The pieces of the jigsaw were certainly laid out, all the group needed to do was fit them together convincingly and we’d surely have a masterpiece on our hands. But things sadly didn’t go as planned.
The initial triple disc idea was scrapped in favour of a single disc format. Pressures from the label saw Bowie being forced to strip back the concept so it could be released on a single disc - albeit one that would still last for an epic 75 minuets. Despite the cut-backs, Outside
is still far too long. Lasting for nearly as long as a feature-length movie, the album is clearly not an accessible or easy listen. Most consumers will likely find themselves losing attention or drifting-off towards the end, whilst even the most patient of listeners will eventually begin to highlight tracks that really could have been omitted. A simple fat-trim would’ve made Outside
a much more streamlined (and consequently, more enjoyable) experience.
Another major complaint often levied against Outside
is that the concept is far too complex and difficult to grasp. Upon the surface, such a complaint seems justified and legitimate as the 19 tracks are incredibly fractured and non-linear - darting between industrial rock, expansive ambient pieces and brief vocal segues, with the songs featuring the same cut-up lyrics technique utilised by Bowie 20 years earlier. The segues find Bowie’s voice heavily treated to sound like whichever character he is taking the form of - be that an old man (Algeria Touchshriek) or a 14 year old girl (Baby Grace) - adding to the confusion. But those who enter Outside
’s intricate world looking for a narrative-driven concept are missing the point. The concept is impenetrable because there is no concept, per se. The 'concept' is the fragmented, incohesive mess which people complain about - the indecipherable lyrics and disjointed track-list is the narrative; the purposeful point of the album.
When one begins to grasp such a notion, Outside
suddenly becomes all the more clever and intriguing. The point was not to have a cohesive narrative clearly explaining the gruesome crimes of ‘Oxford Town’, but rather let the dark, brooding textures do all the talking, so that when one comes out the other side - confused and unsure of what to think or feel due to the jumbled, disconcerting listen - Bowie and Eno had effectively achieved what they set out to do - craft an album that forces you to reach its end with a foggy, uncertain mind; much like you’d have if you were an inhabitant in the twisted fantasy world of Outside
Confused? You’re not alone. Outside
, despite its subtle, puzzle-like inclinations, ultimately cuts its own wrists in trying to be so damn smart - the complex, avant-garde presentation proves to be a double-edged sword in every way. In other words, it makes the album both stronger and weaker - its ambitious and challenging approach earns it credibility, but simultaneously holds it back from greatness because it’s all a bit too complicated and unsettling to gel together as a pleasant listen.
It isn’t without its highpoints though, as tracks such as ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’, ‘Outside’ and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ have a real kick to them, with the former featuring a satisfying NIN-inspired electro-beats/distorted guitars melody, whilst the lattermost boasts a caustic, machine-gun like repetitive hook. The lengthy, semi-ambient pieces such as ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ and the brilliant ‘The Motel’ are just as thrilling; genuinely brooding, dark and atmospheric banks of noise.
is too challenging for its own good - even those who grasp its ‘non-concept’ can’t argue against an overly long runtime and an inconsistent set of songs. Still, the album contains some of the most exciting and thrilling moments out of all Bowie’s nineties work, and it’s certainly the most ambitious album he attempted that decade. It’s not the masterpiece it should’ve been, then, but it’s still an impressive and oftentimes brilliant experience, that all Bowie fans should try at least once before they decide to throw its splintered, complex carcass on the rubbish heap with his other misguided efforts, because Outside
, despite itself, is far from deserving such a treatment.