David Bowie was always fascinated by identity. His love of the subject led him to constantly invent new personalities whose shoes he could temporarily step into: pansexual starmen, well-coiffured soul singers, jazz troubadours birthed in Pan’s Labyrinth. Each new character he inhibited was, to some degree, an accentuated reflection his own personality with its ever-shifting procession of ambitions and tastes.
The more grounded middle-aged Bowie pared down his costume choices a little after 1983’s ‘Let’s Dance’, but never lost this core animating principle. The 1990s saw him embracing his elder statesman role from ‘Black Tie White Noise’ onwards while reinjecting his output with the same questing creativity that had made his name in the first place. Nowhere is this desire to recast the mould of his identity more obvious than on 1997’s ‘Earthling’, the album your dad no doubt describes as ‘that godawful drum & bass thing’.
Alternatively hailed as either return to form or the worst of series of missteps by his confused fanbase, ‘Earthling’ remains a beguiling slice of avant-garde pop from an artist who lived to subvert expectations. On the surface it might resemble ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ with its similar slathering of violent guitar and squalling noise over a loud, punchy production. But in reality the record in Bowie’s enviable discography it shares most in common with is the calmer ‘Hunky Dory’. Bowie’s breakthrough album was a love letter to America recorded in Britain, a tribute to his future home that had produced most of the art, culture and music that informed his identity.
‘Earthling’, on the other hand, is a love letter to Britain recorded in America. It’s the man who fell to earth looking back from his ‘alien nation in therapy’ (as he puts it on ‘Dead Man Walking’) at his foggy planet of origin with the unique fondness long separation can instil. The first hint as to where it’s creator’s head is the cover art. Bowie stands facing away from the listener gazing over the lush English countryside, his erect frame draped in Alexander McQueen’s rippling ‘Cool Britannia’ costume. The second comes with the arresting entrance of Zachary Alford’s drastically reworked drum pattern and the introduction to Bowie’s interest in UK drum and bass music.
Bowie had delved into electronic music before and his previous release ‘Outsider’ definitely contained a faint dusting of the old D’n’B. But while it took a back seat to that album’s experimental art-pop, ‘Earthling’ saw Bowie truly embracing the UK underground’s latest craze. Given that there were precious few British acts who truly commanded Bowie’s attention after Marc Bolan and Ray Davies a quarter of a century earlier, his reverse transatlantic palette switch stands out as one of the most noticeable and daring of his many transformations.
While the instrumentation of the album might have been futuristic (read ‘very much of its time’), the vocals were anything but. Interpreting Bowie’s maddeningly opaque lyrics is a tricky business at best because he valued atmosphere and impression over objective meaning or actual sense. This is truer than ever on ‘Earthling’ with Bowie’s noticeable fondness for William Burroughs’ cut-up technique. But if the particular brand of nonsense he spews about gnomes, flying pigs and shampoo seems oddly familiar, that’s because he’s affected this brand of charming English eccentricity before: back on 1967’s ‘David Bowie’. For an album chiefly remembered for its dalliances with the electronic, ‘Earthling’ actually finds Bowie recapturing the voice of the foppish folk-hippie he was before he’d ever set foot on the New World.
Bowie’s rekindled fondness for the old country is matched by a growing disillusionment with his new home. Anxiety and the pace of modern life form common themes, but its addressed most clearly on the Brian Eno-assisted single ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’. This song’s satirisation of the ‘average American working Joe’ is undercut by its playful nature, but when it’s placed alongside songs like ‘Battle For Britain (A Letter)’ the concept of ‘Earthling’ seems to take on a whole new meaning. It’s both typically British moan and a shared joke from Bowie to his countrymen on the other side of the pond. “Don’t worry fellows,” he reassures the English listener, “I might have taken up residence in this strange land, but it’s still as alien to me as when I was a wide-eyed youth. I remain yours, my dear Albion, an Earthling amongst a sea of Martians.” And so the happy extra-terrestrial would remain until the end of his days.