In the eyes of the perennial music fanatic, Bowie had a rough 80’s. Following the success of ’83’s Lets Dance, Bowie found something that years of cult fandom never brought him: sustained chart success. Rock’s elder statesman now had videos on the premiere music-to-the-masses delivery system, MTV. With a newfound will to live – sans cocaine – the icon doubled down on his disco pop with increasingly sterile albums in what he wryly referred to as his “Phil Collins Years”, Tonight and Never Let Me Down. For the first time in decades, Bowie was following the mainstream, not deviating from it. Gone were his experimental tendencies and oddball collaborators (like Fripp and Belew) and in their place were the more conventional talents of Nile Rogers and Peter Frampton – although credit where it’s due to the bizarre Mickey Rourke rap verse on “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love).”.
By the end of that decade, Bowie’s inspiration ran dry, having completely wrenched the wet rag of ‘80s pop. Saddened, you can hear him regretting his artistic choices in interviews of later years. So, with his ear perpetually on counterculture’s pulse (at this time, early alternative rock), he formed Tin Machine. Tin Machine was comprised of Bowie, Reeves Gabrels, and the Sales brothers (the rhythm section of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life), playing quintessential Rock n’ Fucking Roll. This served as the impetus for his multi-record collaboration with Gabrels, but more than that, Tin Machine required Bowie to strip himself of his fame and get back-to-basics in his love of music. It was him at his most elemental - a guy in a band - and he was a force to be reckoned with. Thankfully, this little-remembered band served as a spiritual reawakening of sorts for rock’s most multifaceted man, reigniting his love of music. Playing in a band was just all about the music.
Instead of his artistry collapsing into a sinkhole of 80s banality, Bowie’s time in Tin Machine revived the deepest wells of his creativity. Rejuvenated, he embarked on several creative endeavours, and met and married the love of his life. At that wedding, he and his darling collaborator Brian Eno opened the doors to an artistic reunion, and therein lies the groundwork for this very record. Six years before the dawn of the new millennium, Bowie and Eno were back in the studio together. They set out to once again create sonic magic without any prior written material, with a band notably including Gabrels, his former 70’s golden era band members: guitarist Carlos Alomar and pianist Mike Garson, and prodigy of his Berlin-era drummer Dennis Davis, Sterling Campbell.
While the Oblique Strategies made their way into the sessions, Eno pulled out some even wilder cards from up his sleeves. The legend concocted several role-playing cards for the musicians, containing instructions like the following:
Needless to say, shit got wild. On top of that, Bowie, an avowed technocrat, commissioned a computer program that digitized gonzo author William S. Burroughs’ well documented “cut-up” technique, renamed the Verbasizer. On top of THAT, Bowie and Eno took a massively inspirational trip to the Gugging hospital in Austria, observing psychiatric patients championed as outsider artists participating in art therapy. The result of all of this was a behemoth concept record, splattered in acrylic and futurist ruminations.
First and foremost, Outside is a high concept of the highest order, a neo-noir investigation into a series of grisly murders staged as performance art, or as the titular narrator Nathan Adler calls them, “Art Crimes.” The narrative shifts between detective Adler; the victim, Baby Grace Blue; and the mysterious personalities of Ramona A. Stone and Leon Blank. Perspectives blur, monologues draft in and out, and characters become indecipherable. This concept is not non-linear in what Bowie dubs a “hypercycle”. Like the film Outside would influence years later, David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), the plot unfolds like a Mobius Strip, paradoxical winding both in and out of itself at the same time. But Bowie doesn’t so much demand that the listener dissect the narrative as much as he wants to you experience it, hurling chromatic vignettes at you in the dark. So don’t let yourself get bogged down by the weight of Outside’s high concept architecture, the music is strong enough to stand on its own.
The record’s unique tone is characterized by a prominent sinister lounge-jazz sound, a then dominant trend in popular tastes that Bowie characteristically latched onto. We’ve got Bowie back on sax; accompanying piano; the most compressed bass guitar you’ve ever heard; and cold, glitchy, beating drums. The pervading industrial digitalism only serves to highlight Bowie’s undying futurism that defines his music here more than ever. The transition into title track from ambient overture “Leon Take Us Outside” is fluid as hell, where we’re met with ‘vaudeville on heroin’, a metamorphosis of synth arpeggios, some rhythmic tambourine and pounding drums. There’s something haunting about Bowie’s “it’s happening now” refrain, which only doubles down in his incongruous eruption of “the fisting of life to the music outside.”
The song warps into “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, another highlight of the record. ‘Hearts’ swoops in with some sexy vocals, giving way to Gabrels’ dissonant and distorted guitar and the best nasal-Bowie voice one could ask for. Flanger on the drums? Yep. And the climax of the reverse cymbal rush underpinning Bowie’s “Oh Ramona” comes crashing like the rush of morphine past the blood-brain barrier. The chopped up vocals intentionally dizzy its listeners in a manner not all dissimilar to the opioid experience. Then enters the mystifying “A Small Plot of Land”, with its Garson’s post-bop piano, snare swing, Gabrels’ howling shred guitar.
One of my favourite moments on the album comes at the end of ‘Segue - Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)’. After Bowie’s warped vocals leave the stage, we’re left with Gabrels’ harmonic guitar taking a dive bomb on his Floyd Rose. We’re suddenly rushed into the ominous and crunching rhythm of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’. It’s odd, mechanical and fast, and if you stop to take a look around, you’ll fall prey to the whiplash that knocks you the fuck out the moment the glass around you breaks (again). The drums pound like the worst headache you’ve experienced, and Gabrels floats above with a demonic three note refrain, all for it to be ripped away. Bowie’s now centre stage, and tells you, dear spaceboy, that you’re sleepy now. But the chaos is killing you. The snarkiness with which he sings “do you like girls or boys” cannot go unnoticed, as recited by the marginalized sick of being repeatedly prodded by the press for his preference. Once the chaos indeed starts killing you, we hear another genius three note riff disorientated, bouncing from left to right speaker, as some wild blitzed out percussion flutters above the mix of the drums. It’s chaos. It’s the pains of withdrawal. It’s mental anguish. It’s outer space. And it’s fucking exhilarating. And the drums only seem to get louder and louder with each erratic fill. Here, Bowie’s made a sardonic foray back into Major Tom’s world, covering him in moondust, devoured by antimatter.
That’s not to say the album is all darkness. As he laments the death of the 20th century on ‘Oxford Town', Bowie sings in his most upbeat spirits. There’s also the major key and downtempo drum-backed 'Thru’ These Architect Eyes’, where Bowie proclaims that we’re living in the golden age. And it’s all typical Bowie – which is to say, not typical at all. On each of the Segues, you hear him toy around with the characters of the record, inhabiting their likeness with Prince-like pitched-up vocals in impressionistic glory. Another fantastic moment on the record is the phenomenally-titled ‘The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)’. With an introduction popping off like Chapman Stick-era King Crimson, a nasally Bowie shrieks out “I Shake!” to break up lines in the verses. When he sings “I shake/ For the reeking flesh/ Is as romantic as hell,” the commitment to the twisted murder at play is palpable.
The obvious climax of the album comes in the form of ‘I’m Deranged’. What kicks off as the “Billie Jean” bass line underpinned by Eno’s glitchy breakbeat drums soon gives way to a tormented and unsettling tone. With a dissociated perspective, Bowie’s pleading “Cruise me!” calls out like a disturbing request. Garson’s piano solo floats by like fragments of a nightmare. It’s the unravelling of sanity, and there’s no return. Like some passive observer to his character’s mental decline, Bowie only notes the angelic rain. Yet it’s ultimately the drawn-out cry of the title “I’m deranged” that raises this song to such monumental heights. For an artist who often worried about his own hereditary mental illness catching up with him, the characters Bowie inhabits sing with a harrowing self-awareness reflecting their own detachment from reality; here, almost revelling in it. This culminates in a realistic vignette of cognitive erosion. The decay of all faculties, giving way to the darkness of derangement. There’s a reason Lynch used this song to both open and close his masterpiece, Lost Highway (1997).
I’m hesitant to discuss the album’s closer, “Strangers When We Meet”, in great detail. It’s a refreshing relief to such a heavy record, bopping along like a distant relative to his anthemic “Heroes”. Here, Bowie sings with the same sentimentality employed back in 1977. A previous recording of “Strangers When We Meet” had a much more cluttered mix, but here it’s been tamed, in order to let Bowie’s more robust vocals shine. However, my hesitation lies in dissecting the significance of this song’s tonal shift from the rest of the record. Like a good film, this ending’s best appreciated and better understood after experiencing the whole thing.
The “1.” In the title of the album hints at an unfinished continuum of works dedicated to diarizing the end of the millennium. Bowie ultimately left that idea on the table, I suspect due to some understandable distractions. He embarked on a successful tour with Nine Inch Nails, playing alongside one of his best live bands (featuring the virtuosic bassist Gail Ann Dorsey). The bootlegs of this era are well worth your time. But clearly feeling the jolt of that live band, he soon went back into the studio to record Earthling, continued to tour, and recorded the series of albums that precipitated his long break before The Next Day. His vision of journaling the end of the 20th century was never realized, and instead, we’re left with this utterly singular work.
1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hypercycle) is a shadowed surrealistic outpour of David Bowie’s pent up experimentalism. It’s cinematic, at times demonically orchestral, and dense with sounds and samples splattered across each wall trapping you in. While not every song is perfect, and the 75 minute run time spotted with eccentric monologues will scare many away, each moment serves to reinforce Bowie and Eno’s world of vivid dreaming - all in a time where it was nonsensical for stadium concert artists to take these sorts of risks. Bowie drove head first into a jazzy industrial sonic tapestry with the utmost artistic integrity. Outside was ultimately a tantalizing creative exercise for rock’s most chameleonic man. It’s a remarkable milestone in the songwriter’s varied discography, and oddly, one that even many Bowie fans have yet to hear. 25 years on, it holds up as Bowie’s most esoteric diversion.