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Week 19 | Earthling (1997)

I have grown to appreciate this album more since its initial release. At the time, I had what I have since come to understand was an atypical reaction— I very much liked its predecessor, “Outside,” and was hoping for Bowie to continue along those lines. (In reading commentary since, “Earthling” seems to be the more popular of the two albums). Actually, there were hints of “Earthing” not only in “Outside,” but going as far back to the song “Pallas Athena” from “Black Tie White Noise” in 1993. But whatever it was I really liked about “Outside” was largely missing from “Earthling.” Instead, Bowie shifted into a genre I only became aware of through this album, alternately known as “jungle” or “drum and bass.”

Though I was and still am not terribly familiar with the style, I thought it sounded like Bowie was following up on a trend rather than leading it. Although I wasn’t paying attention much to Bowie before the mid-1980s, it seemed in retrospect that he was ahead of the mainstream with new wave, disco, of course glam, and even heavy metal (Bowie made “The Man Who Sold the World” in 1970, the same year as Black Sabbath’s debut album). But although I haven’t regularly listened to commercial radio since before “Earthling,” I am under the impression that jungle had already peaked by 1997. Adding to the impression that Bowie was following in this case rather than leading, he had adopted a demonic appearance that, while appealing to my inner 14-year old boy, seemed a little off for a 50-year old rock veteran.

But the album works better detached from time (Bowie’s eternal enemy). I have read “Earthling” isn’t a true drum and bass album anyway, because there’s too much singing. So, its another Bowie album. It is not a sequel to “Outside,” and today does not need to be heard in relation to that album more than it is related to any other Bowie album. On its own, it stands up better.

The album features what might have been Bowie’s last iconic album cover. He hadn’t evolved into the demon yet. The Union Jack duster seems today nearly as much a part of Bowie’s imagery as the Aladdin Sane lighting bolt (maybe not quite that much). The colors are vibrant, including Bowie’s once again red hair. But in another sign of things to come, Bowie does not show his face on this album, in fact he’s turned his back to us.

Bowie albums are often about more than the music alone. The idea, the packaging, the timing all are part of the show. So the cover matters. So do the videos. It wasn’t until 2016 that I came across the video for “Little Wonder,” off this album, which has since become my favorite. Probably the most conspicuous song from the album, “I”m Afraid of Americans,” also has a memorable video that actually sheds light on how to interpret the song— in it, Bowie’s fear appears to be based on paranoia. He is afraid of things that aren’t really there. (Though I suspect that if Bowie was alive and touring, he would be performing this song in earnest).

The album’s title apparently comes from the song, “Law (Earthlings on Fire)”, though I don’t find any meaning in the song’s scant lyrics. This is the song presaged by Pallas Athena. Bowie must have been conscious of the contrast between the word, “Earthling,” and his association with space (last manifest in the song, “Hallo Spaceboy,” from “Outside). But as far as I can tell, the song, and the album are not particularly about Earth, Earthlings or a comedown from outer space. “Earthlings on fire” is a refrain in a song that also, as far as I can tell, is not about law. I would not put it past Bowie to have imbued the song with secret meaning, but I’m guessing he just liked the sound of it.

I too have come to like the sound of it, the whole album. While still not among my favorites, I listen to it on occasion, usually all the way through.

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