Review Summary: His most under-rated effort, and also his most conceptually beguiling.
Isn't it funny how a negative review can inspire you to check out an album much more than a positive one sometimes? I heard about 1. Outside
in a brief guide to Bowie's catalogue that skimmed over all of his albums and ranked them, and despite the waves of positivity aimed at Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory,
, this apparent 2-star album stood out by a mile as the most interesting thing on the list. 'Too dense', 'too arty', 'too conceptual', 'too ambitious', said the reviewer. 'Sounds great', said me, having also been persuaded by the presence of Brian Eno as producer.
Okay, I was just 15 years old at the time, and was still at the stage where I thought progressive metal was the best music in the world and that complexity, rather than tunefulness or restraint, was a virtue. Reading the same review now, I'd probably have thought nothing of it (most of the people reading this will already know that you can't spend more than 3 months listening to bad prog without realizing that 'too dense' and 'too conceptual' are genuine insults rather than backhanded compliments), but it was enough at the time to encourage me to seek this album out and make it the first Bowie album I ever bought.
The problem I have with judging how good this really is is that I don't know how I'd have reacted to it if I'd heard it later. 1.Outside
(which is catchily subtitled The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle
, by the way) really does beat you about the head with its concept - the CD inlay is one of the most carefully-presented and ridiculous in my collection. The concept, detailed in the short story The Diary of Nathan Adler
which makes up most of the inlay, revolves around a dystopian world where murder has become an art form and corpses are being used as canvases, and the government have responded by legislating all art and heavily restricting its creation - the titular Nathan Adler is a government official employed to investigate art and decide what is legal and acceptable, and what is not. This leads him to invesigate the murder of a 14 year old girl which appears to be linked to an underground art collective.
If this all sounds like a mish-mash of Minority Report
to you, then you've pegged it. Yet it's important to note that if you don't read the inlay, you probably won't understand the story - unlike an album like Queensryche's Operation:Mindcrime
's most obvious rock-as-dystopia competitor) the songs themselves are reasonably vague and don't tell a story as such, creating a mood instead. I actually find it a little surprising that this came out in 1995, rather than 2005; I don't own any other album where the inlay adds so much to the music, which would seem like a pretty great way of discouraging illegal downloading if downloading has actually existed back then.
Then again, in terms of sound, it's pretty clear that this came out in '95. Bowie was pretty open in interviews about his influences here, pointing to The Young Gods particularly, but it's no accident that this came out just a year after Nine Inch Nails dropped The Downward Spiral
. It's no copycat or sequel - Bowie and Eno's personalities still run right through the music - but the links are obvious, and I find it very hard to listen to this without wondering whether they'd have been brave enough to even attempt it if Trent Reznor hadn't already proved that there was a mass audience for this sound.
But if you can overlook that, and you can accept the story as part of the project and not dismiss it as pretentious, overarching whimsy, you'll find a thoughtful, intense, dark, powerful album that comfortably ranks as Bowie's most under-rated, and that should probably be considered his best in 15 years at least. Many have pointed to "Strangers When We Meet", "Hallo Spaceboy", and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" as highlights, and they certainly are when taken in isolation, but the album is best enjoyed as a whole, with the distressing segues and experiments like "A Small Plot of Land" treated as a vital part of the experience. Weirdly, the hit "Hallo Spaceboy", notably remixed by Pet Shop Boys, almost feels like the worst track on the album when in context, because the mood is so important and this nearly breaks it. That's just one of the many reasons why the still-enigmatic 1.Outside
is unlike any other Bowie album. It's arguably an album more for fans of the outer fringes of '90s rock rather than fans of Bowie, but either way, there is much to recommend about this beguiling record.