DAVID BOWIE Earthling (RCA)

Hey kids! Who’s that old guy with the ridiculous dyed hair in the Union Jack leather jacket hobbling after the last bandwagon out of Fad City? Well, reason to believe it or not it’s actually David Bowie, clutching his (wait for it) jungle album, for that is what "Earthling" is. A quarter of a century ago he was working overtime at defining what the future would sound like, these days he’s content to peddle second-hand tat that even Everything But The Girl have finished with.

Or is he? While it can’t be denied that at least a third of "Earthling" (which, be fair, is his twentieth solo album) is about as muddled, underwritten and overproduced as the least coherent parts of 1995’s "Outside" would-be epic, there’s something about drum’n’bass DB-style that, when it’s hot, bubbles ferociously, probably because its created, not (substantially) by one man and many machines, but by a tightly-drilled studio band, including old lags such as Mike Garson and Reeves Gabrels. In fact, skip through to the might of "Dead Man Walking", which has a piledriving awesomeness to it that the likes of Underworld can only dream of. Added to which, "Earthling" is by no means as tedious as most pure-bred jungle albums have a drearily predictable habit of being (even works by the scene’s leading lights such as Alex Reece and Goldie).

At the very least "Earthling" has to be the best drum’n’bass album by a fifty-year-old in the world...ever. And it doesn’t half make you wonder what the next Suede album’s going to sound like.

DAVID BOWIE Heathen (Iso/Columbia)

"Heathen" is Mr Jones' 22nd studio album, by my calculation, and by a coincidence it has been hailed in some quarters as his finest studio album in 22 years, making it his best since "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)". Which it might be, although the middling quality of much that he's recorded in between has as much to do with that accolade as any innate excellence "Heathen" may or may not possess. But here he's teamed with producer Tony Visconti once again (he worked with the Thin White Duke during his Berlin period), and a glittering backup crew includes jazz guitarist David Torn, old comrade Carlos Alomar, violinist Lisa Germano, King Crimson bassist Tony Levin, Pete Townshend and Dave Grohl, all of which should be encouraging.

Opening track "Sunday" is not so much a song, although it has music and lyrics and everything it needs to get by as such, as an establishing shot, introducing the listener to the mood of the album. Which is…battered ennui, vocals in a weathered Bryan Ferry style that has been left on a shelf somewhere since "Wild Is The Wind", lots of discreet, tinkling electronica but, crucially, no tenuous concepts or bandwagon-chasing attempts at being hip - Bowie hasn't gone all electroclash for an album, for example. Next, he turns his longstanding admiration of the Pixies into something concrete by covering their "Cactus", and it sounds exactly like Ziggy and The Spiders thirty years after the fall covering a Pixies song. (A let-the-circle-be-unbroken aside: the original featured the chant "P-I-X-I-E-S", a homage to Marc Bolan's "T-R-E-X" chant on "The Groover". Here we get a distant background rumble of "D-A-V-I-D".)

"Slip Away" trawls through the detritus of long-forgotten 70s American sitcoms (the sort of programmes observed by Thomas Newton, perhaps?), a scuffling tale of a Major Tom out of time in a foreign New York. It's slow, stumbling and strangely affecting, and Bowie dusts off his stylophone in celebration…or is it a wake? He does a sterling job of suppressing his glee at the post-modern cleverness of lines such as "Down in space it's always 1982", as pianos casually negotiate minor key leaps unheard since the darker corners of "Diamond Dogs". The spirit of that album is invoked again on "Slow Burn", as Pete Townshend's guitar sounds like the cackling cries of the hounds rampaging down Love Me Avenue as the song itself shuffles away unnoticed like "Boys Keep Swinging" at half speed.

"Afraid" reverses John Lennon's crisis of faith, Bowie sounding like a drowning man clutching at straws on the line "I believe in Beatles" in front of some modern, pounding, paranoid rock music, the negative of Lennon's eventual redemption on "God". "I've Been Waiting For You" is a Neil Young song that has also been covered by the Pixies. Here wailing guitars usurp the jangling, misplaced carnival calliope of the original, but the mood of fumbling uncertainty dovetails seamlessly with the themes of the album. "I Would Be Your Slave" deals some hauntingly blank, static string arrangements, whilst a cover of "I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship" by one of the artist's formative influences the Legendary Stardust Cowboy is quite fun in a Joe-Meek-trapped-in-the-21st-century way.

"5.15 The Angels Have Gone" is another highlight: the grey, monotone surfaces, the (darn it!) angelic choral voices, it could have come from "Low" if that album weren't so determinedly cranky…and if it didn't have those clunky, rather histrionic choruses. "Everyone Says 'Hi'" is a lovely, doe-eyed pop song, as simple as the album gets. (Did anyone say "Kooks"? Well, perhaps a mixture of "Kooks" and Wings' "Let 'Em In", bizarrely.) The veil of melancholia that shrouds the album lifts briefly for "A Better Future", which is "Kooks", again, but with the notes in a different order. "Heathen (The Rays)" mashes up brass band ambience, slithery guitar textures, distant tribal drums and Spector echoes into a remarkable Black Forest gateaux confection that, like the opening track, seems to add up to less than a song: rather, it's a portal back from "Heathen"'s reality to the real world, wherever that may be.

Alright then, "Heathen" is too adventurous to be dismissed as being the sort of good, solid album that we’d be happy to embrace from Bowie at this point in his career. There are enough references to past Bowies to run the risk of making it sound like a compilation, but Tony Visconti's guiding production hand ensures that "Heathen" evokes the spirit of its age as well as any other Bowie album. (Perhaps that's what makes albums like "Never Let Me Down" sound so risible in retrospect, or possibly even on release: Bowie was just accurately reflecting the snare-smashing, billowing, blowsy excess of the time.) And you could be halfway to tentatively considering that the album's disconnected electronica might be a reaction to recent directions in music undertaken by Radiohead before remembering that, with his Berlin trilogy, Bowie invented all that kind of music in the first place. So, yes, it's his best album in 22 years, at least.

DAVID BOWIE Hunky Dory (EMI)

It seems more than a coincidence that "Hunky Dory"'s recent, well-deserved return to the album chart should occur at the same time it was being sold in vast quantities for 2.99 in branches of W H Smiths up and down the land - the idea of Smiths being a chart return shop and therefore dictating/manipulating the apparent musical taste of the nation is something I'm a little uncomfortable with.

Nevertheless, it has at least afforded the opportunity to revisit this album (a rather scratty second-hand vinyl copy has been sitting on my record shelves unplayed for several years). It's crammed with immaculately upholstered, exquisitely detailed, literate, foppish pop music, sited somewhere along the line that connects late-period Zombies and The Divine Comedy, except with rather more artistic inclination. It sounds a little like music hall wrapped in cotton wool, its sumptuousness unique in Bowie's catalogue, surrounded chronologically by the Sabbathesque sludge of "The Man Who Sold The World" on one side and the sci-fi glam "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars" on the other.

Beginning with the pixie saxophone chorus of ch-ch-ch-ch-"Changes", arguably Bowie's biggest hit that never actually was, it's followed by the jaunty generation gap sideswipe "Oh! You Pretty Things", which, somewhat implausibly, first saw daylight as a Peter Noone single. "Life On Mars?" is one of my favourite Bowie songs, sometimes carelessly ignored (it was absent from the "Changesonebowie" and "Changesbowie" compilations), an incredible almanac of a song that contains as many prescient lines as the rest of the album put together: try listening to "Take a look at the Lawman/Beating up the wrong guy…Wonder if he'll ever know/He's in the best selling show" without thinking of Rodney King, or "Now the workers have struck for fame/'Cause Lennon's on sale again", released three years before Bowie would write and record "Fame" with Lennon. It's still a fantastic, tearful shrug of a song, magical even three decades after the fact.

"Kooks" (dedicated "for small Z.", i.e. Bowie's baby son, Zowie) and "Fill Your Heart" are more light-hearted flights of twinkle-toed fancy, expertly sequenced around the albums metaphorically heaviest moment, "Quicksand", following which the album slides into its four closing biographical songs. "Andy Warhol" is another neglected classic, in which Bowie plays the titular character with the same blank good humour he brought to his impersonation of the silver-wigged one in the film "Basquiat", carried unstoppably onward by a bristling torrent of tumbling acoustic guitar. "Song For Bob Dylan" elegantly maps out a generation's bewilderment at their totem's contemporaneous period of creative bankruptcy, the lines "Then we lost your train of thought/The paintings are all your own" cleverly referencing Dylan's recent, critically mauled "Self Portrait" album. Of "Queen Bitch" the sleevenotes read "Some V.U. White Light returned with thanks", and although in truth the crisp production renders it more "Loaded" than "White Light/White Heat" it's hard to imagine Lou Reed not appreciating this tale of tricks and transvestites. (And of course barely a year later Reed would be in the top 10 with the Bowie-produced tale of tricks and transvestites, "Walk On The Wild Side".) Bowie's schizophrenic half-brother is apparently the subject of "The Bewlay Brothers", a song built unsteadily on sifting sands of urban "Astral Weeks" images, like a pack of cards being shuffled in slow motion. A fantastic but impenetrable track, it could be James Taylor on psychedelics or an outtake from Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot".

The current CD of "Hunky Dory" boasts of being "24 bit digitally remastered" on the cover sticker, and replaces the extra tracks offered on EMI's 1990 reissue with some kind of PC content - "Put this CD in your computer and becomes part of the total Bowie interactive experience!" threatens the bumph, like something out of "Diamond Dogs".

Many, myself included, rated the recent "Heathen" as the best Bowie album in over 20 years. The reason nobody's rated it as the best Bowie album in over 30 years is that 30 years ago Bowie was making albums as eerie, inspired and timeless as "Hunky Dory".

DAVID BOWIE Reality (Iso/Columbia)

reality.jpg (23278 bytes)Mr Jones' 21st century rehabilitation continues with "Reality", an album that follows the rather fine "Heathen" with almost indecent haste. Old vet Tony Visconti is once again at the controls, and the credits feature many band members familiar from last time around, alongside names from farther back in the Bowie discography, including guitarist Earl Slick and pianist Mike Garson.

As an album, "Reality" is less like its illustrious predecessor and rather more like an attempt to do "Never Let Me Down" properly (no, wait, come back!) without all that twaddle about glass spiders. (Check the similarity of their sleeve art, even, both of which show a David disconnected from his immediate surroundings.) One of the cover versions - an apparently mandatory fixture on any new phase Bowie album - encapsulates the album all too neatly. His Frank Blackian take on Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso" carries with it (in all probability straight from the source material) a nagging sense of clumsy clunkiness, almost as if we're in the presence of rough ideas buffed with studio polish. This phenomenon is typified elsewhere by some of the song titles, which, given names like "New Killer Star", "She'll Drive The Big Car" and "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon", seem to be the product of some kind of William Burroughs cut-up technique Scrabble game. (A cover of Krokus' "Long Stick Goes Boom" would surely have dovetailed in seamlessly!)

"New Killer Star" opens proceedings with a roving, ranging guitar line that sounds naggingly familiar - perhaps there's an element of Eminem's "Guilty Conscience" about it, of all things. "The Loneliest Guy" comes close to recapturing the introspective tone of the better parts of "Heathen", but in banging on about "Pictures on my hard drive" you can practically smell the passing of sell-by dates. "Looking For Water" tips its titular hat at the plight of Bowie's Thomas Newton character in Nic Roeg's stupendous film "The Man Who Fell To Earth", and "She'll Drive The Big Car" rides a suburban daydream along some soulful backing vocals. George Harrison's "Try Some, Buy Some" is done as sweet, Spectorish psychedelia, whilst the apparently Iggy-venerating title track is one of the album's highlights, certainly the roughest, most raucous offering here (not that there's much competition). With a little more grit and spit it would surely have sat comfortably on Mr Pop's recent, barnstorming "Skull Ring" long player, especially given the way Bowie appears to have abandoned completing the second verse, with lots of "Da da da da"'s filling the spaces where you might expect to find rather more insightful observations. The gently jazzy, eight minute closer "Bring Me The Disco King" reminds me of the ornate scrollwork of the "David Live" album, slightly compromised by the counterintuitive construction of lines like "Don't let me know when you're opening the door"…uh, alright then Dave, I won't. Nevertheless, it's a rare moment of progression and experimentation on an album that otherwise attempts to disguise somewhat underwritten songs with expensive production, and almost succeeds. "Reality" is no disaster: it's a catchy modern rock album that will undoubtedly sound great when played indecently loud, but one that will, for me, remain forever in the long shadow of its illustrious predecessor.

DAVID BOWIE David Live (EMI)

Teetering on an awkward precipice in the Bowie discography, “David Live” was recorded after shrugging off the dystopian cloak of “Diamond Dogs”, but before he’d truly assimilated the Philly soulboy persona of “Young Americans”. Consequently, it’s full of elaborate, but slightly inappropriate, renditions of familiar material, further separated from greatness by distant, remote sonics, as if Bowie were more concerned with the theatrical presentation (unfortunately undocumented, apart from the fragments featured in Alan Yentob’s contemporaneous “Cracked Actor” rockumentary) than the music.

Take opener “1984”, for example. Its Orwellian visions of dread aren’t really suited to the freewheeling funk window-dressing they receive here, despite the efforts expended by a stellar big-band-from-space (whose ranks include Earl Slick, Herbie Flowers, Michael Kamen, Mike Garson and David Sanborn) in negotiating the loose, ornate arrangements. Bowie himself comes across as a strange combination of totally wired twitchiness and lounge lizard suave.

The children of “Changes”, the sole escapee from “Hunky Dory” here, have to contend with something rather worse than spit as they try to change their worlds, but, as pretty much everywhere here, the tautness and control of the album version are gone, with only a baggy indulgence in its stead. The overarrangement is particularly telling on the Spiders From Mars material: the focussed simplicity of “Suffragette City” is a distant memory, lost amidst the brass and backing vocals; “The Width Of A Circle”, with its snake-charming intro, is light years away from the thuggish prog found on “The Man Who Sold The World”; “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” is sapped of the wracked, broken desperation that makes the “Ziggy” version so car-crash compelling – heck, it closes with a gong solo!

Mike Garson’s flamboyant piano flourishes are a positive feature of the “Aladdin Sane” material, and, “Panic In Detroit” is arguably alone here in representing an improvement over the studio take, hitting harder than the original even with Earl Slick’s lengthy, panpotted guitar solo. Note also the Drifters lift on the version of that album’s title track, released in the same year that Genesis drafted in Ben E. King on “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”.

Prior to the 30th anniversary reissue of “Aladdin Sane”, “David Live” was also the only legitimate home to a Bowie version of “All The Young Dudes”, the song he generously donated to Mott The Hoople. Here it wears a slow motion acapella intro and the line “stealing clothes from Marks and Sparks” becomes “stealing clothes from unlocked cars”, perhaps as a concession to the American concert audience. Bowie performs it with the lazy, gently flexing poise and assurance of an artist who can write a generation-defining anthem on his lunchbreak. Other moments of relative rarity on “David Live” include a workmanlike stumble through “Knock On Wood” that made the UK top ten, here introduced by Bowie with the deprecatory comment “We’re gonna play some extras tonight…some silly ones”. Rather more interesting is his slow-burning, satisfying version of The Ohio Players’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”, a bonus track on this reissue. However, form rapidly overtakes function once more on a version of “Space Oddity” that Bowie performed whilst suspended over the crowd in a cherry picker, singing into a telephone handset, which explains the occasional burst of buzzing distortion. The band demonstrate their precision-drilled competence by turning “Big Brother” around from squelchy Moog rock to yeehaw country parody and back again in seconds, and “The Jean Genie” is subjected to a sultry, backstreet-crawling remake.

This latest reissue of “David Live” is presented as an extravagant fold-out double digipak, and comes bustling with extra tracks, reinstates the show’s original running order and boasts remastering (which does little to eradicate the thin sound of the original vinyl pressing) and an extensive, informative essay by producer Tony Visconti. However, the latter, in revealing what had to be rerecorded for release rather contradicts what I presume is the original sleevenote claim elsewhere that “No studio overdubs or re-recordings of voices, instruments or audience have been added with the exception of several backing vocals due to a loss of theatre mike contact”. None of this, though, can compensate for the difficulty any live Bowie album inevitably faces when attempting to venture outside a tightly controlled repertoire: any attempt to cram material from disparate phases of his career into the same night with the same band is an ambitious idea doomed to almost certain failure.

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