Personalities | David Bowie | Seeking Direction in the Nineties

Having previously declared that he would never record outside Tin Machine, Bowie proceeded to renege on both this and, in time, his assertion that he would not play his old hits for live audiences. Nobody seemed inclined to sue him for breach of promise.

The fact that he once again engaged the production services of Nile Rodgers hardly boded well for Black Tie White Noise (1993). Mercifully, though, this was no Let’s Dance (1983). How weird and/or apposite that Rodgers should help pull Bowie from the decade-long slump that he had helped to precipitate.

Newly Inspired

The record was as engaged and adventurous as Let’s Dance was aimless and conservative, and only the irritatingly brittle drums spoiled the proceedings. The album found Bowie in cheerful mood, a clue to which would seem to be the fact that the opening and closing tracks were about his nuptials. He delved into his jazz hinterland like never before, as well as exploring the more modern sound of club techno. The album contained three instrumentals, one of which – ‘Looking For Lester’ – saw Bowie duel on sax with trumpeter Lester Bowie (no relation). There were several covers but, unlike Let’s Dance and Tonight (1984), they were intriguing rather than bewildering (e.g. a Morrissey song that had sampled his own ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’). The drunkenly tuneful ‘Jump They Say’ became a UK Top 10.

Also in 1993 came The Buddha Of Suburbia. The fact that even a Bowie soundtrack album had gravitas proved he was on an upswing, although it should be conceded that this was not a conventional soundtrack, as Bowie played fast and loose with the score he had originally provided the BBC for their dramatization of Hanif Kureishi’s novel. Arista allocated the album the same promotional budget as any other soundtrack, thus probably accounting for the fact that the wistful title track climbed no higher than No. 35 in the UK. In any event, Bowie was, like many ‘heritage’ artists, moving beyond a point where singles particularly mattered.

More Drama Than Music

The bizarrely titled 1. Outside (1995) saw Bowie reunite with another former producer, Brian Eno, for what was surely his most ambitious work ever. Far more like a radio play than an album, it was a grisly narrative – complete with spoken-word sections and oodles of sound effects – about the investigation into how a teenage girl’s insides came to be used as an art exhibit. The fact that Bowie attempted free-form jazz, jungle and techno was a little disconcerting: he used to set the trend, not follow it. Moreover, almost all the songs were co-written with his producer and/or colleagues. Even so, tracks like ‘Segue: Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)’ and ‘Wishful Beginnings’ were disquietingly compelling.

Embracing The Modern

Earthling (1997) saw Bowie crank up the tilt at relevance by experimenting with jungle/drum’n’bass, industrial rock and techno. ‘Urgh!’ must have been the response of some of his now primarily...

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