While I was writing yesterday’s post about Bowie’s worst album (see yesterday’s post), I noticed that the video link to one of his better albums, 1. Outside, was broken. Apparently, YouTube no longer has a link to a recording of the entire album. Instead, if you want to hear the whole thing on YouTube, you’ll get a series of videos and audio recordings of the songs in order. That’s fine as a way to listen to the album on YouTube but not for purposes of this blog (don’t they know that???) What I’ve done is replace the full album video with an audio link to the album’s title track.
It just so happens that I’ve posted about a couple of bad Bowie albums I recent days— in addition to his 1967 debut, I also recently posted about Love You Til Tuesday, a 1984 release of a 1969 promotional project that had largely been forgotten until someone released it during the height of Bowie’s pop success. So, while I’m not happy that I can’t provide a link to the full 1. Outside album, I’m glad to have the opportunity to revisit something my favorite artist did that I actually like.
And I like 1. Outside very much, as you will read below. I was surprised to read, after Bowie died, that fans are of a decidedly mixed mind about this album. I’m not. It isn’t just one of his better later albums, it’s one of my favorite Bowie albums full stop. Let’s see— my very favorite Bowie albums are Scary Monsters, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs and Station to Station. Blackstar is better than 1. Outside. But then I’d put this one on par with Hunky Dory and Lodger. I like it slightly more than Heathen. Yes, Aladdin Sane, Low and “Heroes” have some of Bowie’s best songs, but they are all uneven in their own ways. Anyway, ask me on another day and I’d give you a different answer, but in my mind that’s where I think this album fits in the pantheon of Bowie’s material.
The album contains a mix of fast, hard driving songs and much slower, atmospheric songs. The fast ones are intently accessible. If you don’t like, “Hallo Spaceboy” or “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” the first time you hear them, you are unlikely to think differently later. I find, on the other hand, that over time I have come to better appreciate songs like “Outside,” “The Hotel” or “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty). Anyway, I’m not going to start repeating what I wrote the first time, which I re-read before posting and hey, it’s pretty good!
Two final notes before getting to the original post: First, you will see that back in 2019 I was putting album titles in quotes rather than italics. Today I put song titles on quotes and album titles in italics, which is, I think, correct. I didn’t bother fixing this in the following original post.
The other note is this revelation that has hit me of late but can’t possibly be an original thought that even Bowie’s best music after the mid-80s has not entered the canon of classic rock because the classic rock period ended. Not that I listen to classic rock radio stations too much anymore, but I’m pretty sure any format that features classic rock might play “Suffragette City” or “The Jean Genie” but not anything at all Bowie released in the 90s and beyond. Maybe, some of the songs from 1. Outside would be included in some sort of retrospective of industrial music, but apart from some random college station somewhere, I doubt there are very many industrial music programs. And even then, I’m going to guess that Bowie’s version of “industrial” might be considered watered down by hardcore fans of the genre. (The Wikipedia entry on “industrial music” doesn’t mention Bowie, though it mentions a boatload both of his influences and those he influenced). So an album like 1. Outside has to be found. Its not exactly hidden, but its not going to fall into your lap. Much of Bowie’s best-known work from the 70s through the mid-80s is almost unavoidable, but you’d probably have to decide you like Bowie and want more to track down something like 1. Outside. But if you are reading these words, I’m guessing you already knew, at least, that this album exists.
Here’s what I originally posted on 1/6/2019:
“Outside” (I’ll drop the “1” and just refer to it as “Outside” here) is one of my favorite albums. It is the first Bowie album that was not already part of his catalogue when I became a fan that would become one of my favorites. I have probably listened to it through more than all but “Scary Monsters,” “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust,” “Diamond Dogs” and possibly “Heathen.” Though it has a few flaws, and though Bowie’s voice was weaker in 1995 than it was it its high point in the late 1970s, for me it was truly his “best album since Scary Monsters” (that’s meant as a not-so inside joke— almost all his albums would be characterized as such starting with “Black Tie/White Noise”).
So all that said, it was much to my surprise that “Outside” wasn’t remembered with much affection during the period of copious commentary after Bowie’s death. I read a book called, “On Bowie,” by Rob Sheffield, who wrote of the album, “Outside was difficult to follow the first time through, but fans persevered because it was Bowie and they really wanted to like it. The album has its moments (especially ‘No Control’), but sadly, judging by the way it dragged down his next few albums commercially, its fair to say consumers felt burned after a few listens— not just that they’d bought a dull new Bowie project, but that they’d made an emotional investment in an obviously well-intentioned album that nonetheless did not repay close listening the way they hoped it would. What was going on with this guy?”
I feel like I could write this entire commentary in reaction to Sheffield. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of fan reactions the way he claims to have (not sure how he does either, but let’s stipulate that he was able to channel fan reaction to listening to the album multiple times in the mid-1990s…somehow). Sheffield was not alone. Wikipedia summarizes critical reaction to the album, much of which appears to be middling. Many of the seemingly random lists of Bowie albums ranked (Google the term— you’ll find many), put “Outside” in the middle of the pack, usually in the bottom half. Bowie himself commented that the album featured, “maybe one too many characters.”
So, OK, there’s no accounting for taste. But I don’t know what those guys are talking about. First off, “Outside” contains a lot of music. This is not always a sign of quality in a Bowie album, but depending on the version, here there are at least 13 songs plus additional “segues” (I’ll get to that), which leaves some room to maneuver. The last song on the album, “Strangers When We Meet,” has always sounded inconsistent with the rest of the album. Bowie clearly liked the song, as he also included it on “The Buddha of Suburbia” and also made a video. But it is a fairly typical pop song, while the rest of “Outside” is dark and industrial. But so what? While I think the album could have been tighter without “Strangers,” an extra song doesn’t make the album bad (or “dull”).
Sheffield might be equating “dull” with “somber.” “Outside” is not a happy album. Many of the songs are not only slow moving, but tense and almost scary. “No Control” is one such song. Why did Sheffield single that out as opposed to, say, “A Small Plot of Land” or “Wishful Beginnings”? In any case, Bowie keeps the album moving by mixing in, amongst the somber, atmospheric songs, driving rockers such as my favorite, “Hallo Spaceboy,” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson.”
Others clearly found meaning in these songs, as many of them would reappear in various movies. I imagine “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” is known to a broader audience because it closes the movie, “Seven.” “I’m Deranged” opened and closed the David Lynch movie, “Lost Highway,” and a modified version of, “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” appears in “Starship Troopers” as “I Have Not Been to Paradise.” “A Small Plot of Land” appears in the movie, “Basquiat” and was covered by “Blackstar” collaborator Donny McCaslin who, in doing so, helped underscore the link between “Outside” and Bowie’s more beloved final complete album. Actually, to that last point, while some of the songs from “Outside” could have easily found a home on “Blackstar,” the later album is less than half the length of its earlier predecessor. Would “Blackstar” have been received as “dull” if it included more songs? Some of this probably has to do with Bowie having a good publicist, but movie-makers don’t generally seed their soundtracks with songs they don’t actually think work for their movies.
“Outside” itself if theatrical. It is supposed to tell a “non linear” story about ritual art murders. As a concept, I would agree that this is not the album’s strength. The “non linear” story isn’t much of a story at all and indeed is hard to follow. Many of the songs have nothing obviously to do with the story, but are strung together by the aforementioned “segues,” which are little monologues by characters, portrayed by Bowie, who sort of establish that a detective is investigating the disappearance of “Baby Grace” who may have been murdered as part of an art project. Or something like that. If there is an aspect of the album that doesn’t hold up after repeated listening, it is this. I have a version of the album that drops the segues and just contains the music. It also works, but despite the imperfections, I tend to gravitate back toward the original album. Flawed though the segue concept is, the album as a whole still has a hold on me.
But the album’s real strength is the music. Like many Bowie albums, there are for me three standout songs on this one— in addition to “Spaceboy” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” is what to me is one of Bowie’s most overlooked songs, “Thru These Architects Eyes.” The latter song has no obvious connection to the album’s storyline. There’s no video and it wasn’t a single. But right in the middle of this album is this great song, hidden in plain sight.
Most of the rest of the songs can be divided between those that are not instantly likable but, again contrary to Sheffield, lend themselves to contemplation through repeated listening (“A Small Plot of Land,” “No Control,” “The Motel,” Wishful Beginnings,” “I’m Deranged”) , and those that are hard to get out of your head (or at least mine) (“Oxford Town,” “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)”, “We Prick You”). The title track, “Outside,” works only as a setup for the rest of the album.
The marketing of “Outside” has much to do with its place in the Bowie universe. Again going back to Sheffield, because “Outside” was heavily marketed especially to fans as a kind of a comeback album, expectations were indeed raised. But “Outside” is not a comeback album in the same way as “The Next Day”. Bowie “came back” after not making an album for a decade when he released “The Next Day” in 2013. Absence made the hearts of fans grow fonder and “The Next Day” was embraced with an enthusiasm that, in retrospect, outstripped the actual quality of the music. If the two albums were swapped in time, I am pretty sure that “Outside” would have been hailed as a masterpiece in 2013 while critics like Sheffield would have called “The Next Day,” dull in 1995.
Bowie had released an album at a pace of about one every two years for more than a decade by the time of “Outside” (and he would continue to do so for nearly another decade). So Bowie wasn’t really coming back in 1995– he had never left. But “Outside” did come on the heels of a series of marketing misfires. Bowie’s immediately previous album was, “The Buddha of Suburbia,” which was two years old by the time of “Outside” but hadn’t been released in the United States until a month after “Outside,” and even then its US release seemed to be an afterthought.
Two of Bowie’s three albums before “Buddha” also had stealth marketing strategies. Tin Machine’s 1992 live album, the horribly packaged and more horribly named “Oy Vey, Baby,” seemed to be treated like a contractually obligated release that nobody ever intended to actually sell. It’s not so much that fans rejected this album as they simply didn’t know about it. To a lesser extent, fans could be forgiven for not knowing that the 1991 “Tin Machine II” was a new, original Bowie album. Bowie’s name and image do not appear on the album cover, and the name presupposes potential buyers not only knew about the first “Tin Machine” but were eagerly awaiting a sequel. “Led Zeppelin II” worked as an album name, but what would draw anyone to “Tin Machine II” unless you (a) knew that “Tin Machine” was not just the name of the band itself, the name of the first album and the name of a song off the first album; (b) that Bowie was the lead singer in the band; and (c) that the album contains all new music?
None of this applies to 1993 album, “Black Tie White Noise,” but that jaunty pop album, while a welcomed addition to the retrospective Bowie catalog, was totally out of sync with the hard, darker sequence of Tin Machine through “Outside” (and beyond, to “Earthling”). If anything, “Black Tie White Noise,” coupled with Bowie’s 1990 greatest hits tour and the “Sound and Vision” box set, set the table for a return of Bowie the pop star. In that respect, “Outside” fails to deliver. But that’s the wrong way to listen to the album.
One other note about the marketing of “Outside”— starting with this album cover, Bowie’s face would never again be prominently featured on any of his subsequent album covers as a photograph (“Heathen” features a photo, but it is heavily altered). The cover art on “Outside” is a recognizable impressionistic image of Bowie, painted by Bowie himself. Bowie’s back is to the camera on the cover of “Earthling.” Bowie’s face appears twice on “…hours” because the image is of Bowie holding Bowie, but the shot if from a distance. The cover of “Reality” is a painting. Bowie’s face is literally blocked on the cover of “The Next Day,” and the cover of “Blackstar” is a black star. It’s hard not to conclude that Bowie was becoming self conscious about aging. Death had long been an element in Bowie’s music, but “Outside” is perhaps more about death, decay and entropy than any of his other works (again, with the possible exception of “Blackstar”). This is a feature, not a flaw in “Outside.” Decline is a perfectly acceptable subject matter for a middle aged rocker. It would have been more than a little sad if Bowie was still releasing songs with lyrics like, “forget that I’m 50 ‘cause you just got paid,” when he was actually approaching 50 (I write this on my 50th birthday).
So forgive me if I am a little defensive about “Outside.” I have valued it deeply since it was released. Bowie gave a great, hard-driving concert promoting the album (I traveled to Pittsburgh to see it), and he would continue to play some of its songs for the duration of his performing career. Taste is subjective, but in my view this is one of his best.