Pop’s newest cutting edge isn’t coming from its young. It’s emerging from a growing number of seasoned artists who, after losing their muses, managed to snatch them back at the waning age of 50. Eric Clapton didn’t get up the nerve to make his first pure blues album until he was facing down the Big Five-O with 1994’s From the Cradle. At 51, Joni Mitchell released Turbulent Indigo (1994), her most searching album since 1976’s Hejira. And now, one month after David Bowie blew out 50 candles, he’s unveiling his first smart, exciting, and…well, Bowie-esque record since Scary Monsters more than 16 years ago.
The long stall only makes this payoff that much sweeter. On Earthling Bowie at last locates a mean between the two treacherous paths that threw his career off course. If his mid-’80s records (Let’s Dance, Never Let Me Down) cynically cashed in on bland pop, his subsequent output veered too far in the direction of uncompromising ”art.” From his tin-eared late-’80s band Tin Machine to his cockamamy 1995 concept album Outside, Bowie proved that it isn’t enough to write songs some grudgingly admire; he should write music some pine to hear.
Bowie accomplishes that on Earthling — an album as playable as it is startling. To his credit, he avoids recycling sounds from his golden years (1971-80). Instead, he finds their current equivalents. Bowie seeks inspiration in ”electronica,” that clutch of underground dance rhythms now affecting the mainstream, bridging the fury of techno, the swish of drum-and-bass, and the whir of ambient music. Just as 1975’s Young Americans reconfigured the ”new” rhythms of disco into Bowie’s own chic pop, Earthling rewires electronica for his more recent take on industrial rock.
”Little Wonder” kicks off the album with the most alarming opening volley heard on a record in some time — a careening whine of guitars skidding into a wall of blood-smattered synths. Sampling the sounds of chugging trains, bleating whistles, and collapsing metal, Bowie’s music mines every ear-piercing shriek missed by Ministry six years ago. Crucial credit for this should go to guitarist and Bowie loyalist Reeves Gabrels. While his earlier collaborations with Bowie veered into the indulgent and ugly, here their racket invigorates. Gabrels has found a way to marry the squealing thrash of a Steve Vai to the architectural sweep of a Robert Fripp.
The electronica beats give Gabrels’ guitar shards bracing movement. As dance subgenres go, techno and drum-and-bass represent the fastest styles yet invented, making this, by definition, Bowie’s briskest album. A sprint of slapping snare drums and shimmering cymbals brightens nearly every track.
If such sounds give Bowie a claim to the future, his melodies connect him to the past. He’s writing tunes that catch the ear again. Songs like ”Seven Years in Tibet” and ”Looking for Satellites” recall the fluid psychedelia of Hunky Dory. You’ll find melodies you can hum even amid the album’s wildest clamor.
Bowie’s words side with the assault. At their most jarring, he indulges a technique, learned from William Burroughs, of splicing random words together. But he also risks direct statements, like an attack on cultural imperialism in ”I’m Afraid of Americans,” or a send-up of people who fear the unknown in ”Law.” The folly of feigning control serves as the album’s recurring theme, something well suited to Bowie’s age.
If such themes ground Bowie, another new release paints him in more arty terms. Composer Phillip Glass has reworked six pieces from Bowie’s (and Brian Eno’s) 1977 album Heroes into a Heroes Symphony. In 1993, Glass did the same thing with Bowie’s Low. His version of Heroes previously accompanied a dance piece by choreographer Twyla Tharp, but even without Tharp’s visual cues the symphony has a chilling Germanic simplicity. Bowie’s old synthetic mood pieces gain a new richness and severity told through Glass’ swelling orchestra.
It’s juicy meat for Bowie scholars, but, ironically, his pop work holds greater substance. Not only does Earthling help him reconnect with the rock zeitgeist, it counts Bowie among those artists — like Clapton, Mitchell, and Neil Young — who are pushing the age barrier of a vital pop career. For that, they should all be called heroes.
Heroes Symphony: B