The album bursts into life with a sound akin to the angry sigh of a satanic robot who has just been told he’s not working nights next week. Seconds later, a contrasting melody that doesn’t seem to shun the daylight comes to the fore, a pounding drum machine might mask it, but the refrain isn’t all that far the prettiest pieces on Hunky Dory. In truth, this odd mix is a paradigm of the record and David Bowie’s artistry as a whole.
Remarkably, Earthling was ‘The Starman’s’ 21st studio album and his eye was still drawn towards innovation. Bowie at this stage, however, was not necessarily standing way out in the future and orchestrating from afar. The ideas put forward on the record have clear influences from the leading acts of the era. These influences are then tempered with the inherent beauty always in Bowie’s work and often underreported—hence a crashing industrial hellscape, meddling with a tender top-line in the first few seconds of the record like a twist of orange in a syringe of junk. Bowie was forever moving with the times even when he wasn’t moving them himself, but beneath it all, was a backbone of timeless songwriting.
The album was his first self-produced LP since Diamond Dogs 23 years earlier. This is another exemplifier of Bowie as an artist. How many folks out there do you think would be daring enough to not only risk a glowing legacy and get behind the wheel again after nearly two and a half decades but to do so when driving a prototype with a completely new manual—he wasn’t just pressing record and doling out acoustic ditties here, this album was so heavily produced that you wouldn’t be surprised to see Bill Gates get a credit.
What’s more, Bowie’s career had been somewhat floundering for a while at this stage. He braved new worlds at every turn, but you’d be hard pushed to argue that the decade prior to Earthlings had been his most fruitful. The album almost seems like a recognition of that fact. He started recording a few days after finishing his last tour and, by his own admission, he set about returning to something similar to Scary Monster (And super Creeps), his last truly magnificent album at the time.
All of this is, of course, highly creditable. In fact, It is a hallmark of Bowie’s work that even when he failed he did so with integrity and there was always something to salvage, not merely a recognition of creative daring. But what about Earthlings itself as a listening experience?
Well, the manic experimentation and mingling of various wild ideas is certainly dazzling and there is no doubt that a dull moment is as foreign as a cheese sandwich in China on the record but aside from ‘Little Wonder’, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ and maybe ‘Dead Man Walking’ I’m not sure that many people still listen to it. And even when it comes to ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ I’m not sure anyone quite liked as much as Bowie did himself.
“It was the hybridizing of the European and the American sensibilities, and for me, that’s exciting,” he told Live! magazine after the release, “That’s what I do best. I’m a synthesist.” Never a truer word has been spoken, but he has synthesised better than Earthlings in the past and even after it too for that matter. There is perhaps just too much going on in the mix of the album and while that might have injected his discography with an adrenalised dose of innovation upon release, 25 years it seems that later the dust it shook up was admirable, but now it has settled, you don’t blow it off all that often.