It was late 1995. ‘The Bends’, ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’ and ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ were drowning the airwaves in vast, surging distortion. Heat, Se7en, and The Usual Suspects were bringing crime noir back with a vengeance. The Internet had entered the public consciousness. The world was in the grip of techno-cultural anxiety, and a new millennium was creeping up like a storm on the horizon.
Against this tempestuous backdrop David Bowie was, as ever, breaking new ground. After 1993’s vibrant return to form in ‘Black Tie White Noise’ and ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, Bowie found himself, for the first time in decades, at a stumbling block. Immersed in the saturated soundscape of the mid-90s, with eighteen albums behind him and a legend’s reputation, Bowie was left unsure where to turn his creative wonder-guns next. What to emulate, what to reject, what to resist and what to revive. An explosion of unshackled experimentation later, he came out with ‘Outside’. A foray into Industrial rock, a sinister cybernoir fable and a musing on the nature of art itself, all stuffed into the suit of a turn-of-the-millennium crime thriller. Music, lyrics, theatrical monologues, short stories, in-character diaries, even the self-portrait album art are all crafted by Bowie. ‘Outside’ is not an album so much as a multi-media art project. A sprawling dystopian beast that’s bursting at the seams, and a slightly-terrifying example of just what Bowie was capable of without limits.
‘1. Outside – The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle’ to give the album its full name, saw Bowie’s final collaboration with producer Brian Eno. In many ways, it picks up where ‘The Berlin Trilogy’ left off, making extensive use of Eno’s off-the-wall techniques in both writing and recording. Approaching the project with no clear idea in mind, the early days of ‘Outside’ saw Bowie and Eno locked in deep discussions about what was missing in music and what areas they wished to explore. Inspired by outsider art from psychiatric hospitals, they entered the studio without any pre-prepared material. Jamming in a studio hung with shock art and psychedelic portraits, the album gradually took shape.
Bowie decided that he wanted to produce a concept album in the style of 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’, but on a far grander scale. Inspired by gritty noir thrillers of the 1940s and his life-long passion for avant garde art, Bowie created the character of Detective Nathan Adler, and a world where ritualized murder has become an underground art obsession. But where ‘Diamond Dogs’ has only Halloween Jack, ‘Outside’ features a vivid cast of suspects, sleuths and seductresses; Fourteen-year-old victim Baby Grace Blue, tyrannical futurist Ramona A. Stone, youthful performance-artist Leon Blank, enigmatic art-killer The Minotaur. Bowie’s ‘persona’ is that of the narrator, leading us through the semi-linear tale of Nathan’s investigation. Each track weaves a new part of the story, be it interrogation, gossip, memory or even, in the case of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, a car chase. There’s also a set of “segues” where Bowie delivers in-monologues, affecting a cockney croak for the elderly Algeria Touchshriek or a New Joysey drawl for Nathan himself. With twists, reveals, flashbacks and an ending it’s about as theatrical as concept albums get (indeed, Bowie toyed with the idea of presenting it as a musical). If ‘Diamond Dogs’ is a glitter-sprinkled flight of fancy then ‘Outside’ is a drug-fuelled hitch-hike on the wing of a 747.
The music that drives Nathan’s tale came about largely from experimentation. ‘Outside’ is the album where Bowie embraced industrial rock, borrowing from Nine Inch Nails and Killing Joke for a manic, malevolent sound that suits the vicious narrative. Laced with whirring computers, snappy electro drums and hefty grunge-punch guitars, it’s music for underground cyberpunk raves and angle-grinder cabaret. But beyond the distorted anxiety of ‘No Control’ and ‘I’m Deranged’ there’s a subtle undercurrent of jazz. Frenzied horror-movie piano flourishes, last heard on 1973’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ make a hair-raising return on ‘A Small Plot of Land’ and ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’. The shrill, panicked synths mirror the Psycho strings of 40s noir thrillers, and have the same unsettling effect. And Bowie’s tortured, wailing baritone, riding high above it all, is the closest he ever comes to the murderous gothic lusciousness of Nick Cave.
In the decades that have followed, the legacy of ‘Outside’ has been a mixed one. Some hail it as Bowie’s most ambitious creation, whilst others call it bloated and self-indulgent. Clocking in at seventy-five minutes, there’s no denying that ‘Outside’ feels a little like an over-packed suitcase. The kind that explode when you open it. But maybe that’s the point.
Perhaps more than any other release, it captures that frantic pioneering gusto that made David Bowie such a paragon. It incorporates the best of Bowie’s past, with the lofty fictional depth of Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs, the avant garde ethos of Heroes, Aladdin Sane and Station to Station, and revels in his career-long obsessions with art, the future and American culture. It also paves the way for the odd-rock stylings of ‘Earthling’, ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Blackstar’.
In a word, ‘Outside’ is bonkers. It’s bombastic, excessive and immersive. At worst, it’s a glorious theatrical thicket of ideas hammered together into something roughly resembling an album. But at best, it sums up everything that makes David Bowie one of a kind. Because nobody else, nobody, could have come up with something quite this deranged and make it work.