Popular Musics and Aftershocks
39 · 26 October 95
David Bowie: Outside
Initially, David Bowie's new album, Outside, seems like it might be one of the most ambitious cross-media concept albums to ever be marketed primarily as music. The seventy-five minute recording, which mixes music with fabricated interview segments, is accompanied by several pages of the diary of Bowie's fictional art-crime detective, Nathan Adler, detailing his investigation into the heavily stylized murder of a fourteen-year-old girl named Baby Grace Blue. The soundtrack, rather than reiterating the prose narrative, instead illustrates points of it with oblique aural still-lives. The lyrics of the songs, re-translated back into print for the liner, are manipulated visually so as to represent the mood of the songs, rather than necessarily conveying the literal text. The overall result Bowie calls "A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle", and this is as apt a characterization of the format as anything else, I suppose.
The premise of the story, that a renegade art faction has pushed the creative frontier to the point where ritualistic murder can be justified as artistic rhetoric, intrigues me. It's well worth some of your time, I think, to ponder the extent to which "It's only a movie" pacifism has pervaded art for most of its existence. Violence can be an incredibly profound form of self-expression, and it's worth understanding what power an artwork sacrifices when it agrees to respect the imaginary line separating it from its audience, even if you don't plan to cross the line after all. Bowie, of course, is hardly the first artist to explore this idea, and this work itself, unless the paper of the case is impregnated with a slow toxin whose effects I have yet to detect, is not actually an example of it, but still. The central art work in the story, which is described in somewhat unnerving detail in the diary, does sound provocative, however abhorrent you consider it for the fact that its production required the killing of a child.
The execution of this "non-linear hyper-cycle", however, leaves something in the way of coherency to be desired. In fact, let me be clearer: as a serious artistic concept-work, this album is a colossal, ungodly mess. The diary is full of deliberately obtuse references to things that I suspect any attempt to actually explain would reveal as ill-considered fabrications with about the sophistication of the additional episodes of Star Trek that my friend Tex and I used to make up in his backyard when we were eight, in which all plot details were contrived so as to lead to a pitched battle fought with those little plastic disc-firing guns that everybody used to have back when children were smart enough to understand the difference between toys and lethal firearms, and to not shoot each other in the eye from two feet away. Both the diary and the lyrics frequently expose Bowie's fundamental unfamiliarity with the actual details of modern technology (one character is described as "a reject from the world-wide Internet", and while it's clear enough what Bowie means by this, the way he says it makes him sound like his personal knowledge of the net comes from hopelessly oversimplified small-town news specials). There are some real characters present, which is more than one can say about most other rock concept albums, but compared with any medium in which the vaguest semblance of storytelling of the unfashionable linear sort takes place -- like, for example, a Matlock special -- the characterization here is inept and laughable at best. In fact, the level of language use throughout, whether in the lyrics or the diary, tends to rarely better what you'd expect from any reasonably intelligent high-school introvert. The liner art, though it all has that striking futuristic feel lent anything by enough Photoshop flagellation, is filled with details that to me seem pretty stupid on close inspection. Though if you feel that a distended photograph of a blindfolded Bowie with dead fish taped to his body deserves sober contemplation, you're welcome to disagree with me.
I only partly blame Bowie for these failings, though. A more complete artist would recognize where his talents are and where, plainly, they are not, but a large part of the blame lies with the current media fascination with non-linearity itself. The Web, in particular, has promoted the idea that hyper-fiction is the future of written art with enough "visionary", if technocentric, enthusiasm that I'm hard pressed to fault anybody for temporarily believing it. Personally, though, I'm going through a phase of powerfully renewed support for linearity. Hypertext can be enormously useful in many contexts, especially reference material, where it makes it possible to render directly in machine form the process that takes place in a human mind when, for example, you look up a series of words in a thesaurus. In storytelling, though, linearity is the artwork. The process of creating a story is precisely one of sorting through the possibilities that could have been, and picking a single set to pretend did happen. Leaving some of the choices up to the reader of the work is simply not completing it. Does nobody remember Choose Your Own Adventure books? Has anybody noticed them crowding Bulgakov and Twain off the store shelves? Why do you think "interactive hyperfiction" is going to be much different? Hyper-fiction, at least so far, seems to me to be a technical solution in search of a social problem. When Homer sat by a fire and recited The Odyssey, what, exactly were the problems? What is wrong with Catcher in the Rye or Speaker for the Dead that you think a new medium will correct? Outside isn't interactive, of course -- sorry about the digression -- but as an artwork it succumbs to many of the same "cutting edge" fallacies.
And the ironic thing, at least in my opinion, is that it needn't have bothered. Because if you forget what it claims to be, ignore Bowie's multimedia aspirations, and just take Outside as a rock album, I think it's stunning. Whatever his failings as a narrative artist, Bowie knows music, and with the production and co-writing participation of Brian Eno, who also has some familiarity with the subject, this quickly becomes a musical document of impressive stature and complexity. It's been a while since much of anybody considered Bowie to be in the vanguard of rock innovation, but this record does a pretty decent job of showing that Bowie and Eno can still concoct weirdness that makes Nine Inch Nails sound like Depeche Mode, and Aphex Twin sound like equipment malfunction (though I should admit that I kind of thought NIN sounded like Depeche Mode and Aphex Twin sounded like gear failure even before I heard this). Strange piano glissandos beat against industrial drum-machine grooves. Ghostly echoes and lithe fretless bass twine around Bowie's elegant voice. Rhythms stutter, guitars roar, and enigmatic lyrical phrases drift through like Dali watches on wayward holiday.
In many ways Outside reminds me of Thomas Dolby's The Flat Earth, one of my favorite works of musical atmosphere, but Bowie and Eno manage to keep up the mood for over an hour, where Dolby's version began to fall apart after just one LP side. "Outside" groans, howls and stomps ominously. "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" is choppy and sinisterly apocalyptic. "A Small Plot of Land" is ornate and stentorian. "Hallo Spaceboy" is frenetic and silly in a typically loopy Bowiean way. "The Hotel" is distracted and austerely elegant. "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town" is snappy and finely-machined. "No Control"'s languid vocals slide over simmering synthesizer grooves. "The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)" opens with Reeves Gabrels doing some credible Adrian Belew guitar impressions, and then crescendos rousingly. "Wishful Beginnings" is stark and eerie. "We Prick You" sounds like the exhumed skeleton of a forgotten New Wave classic (with the chattering, oddly motivational tag line "Mutual respect, even if you disagree"). "I'm Deranged" pairs a furious drum track and pulsing bass with meandering vocals and arbitrary-sounding piano incursions. The ringing "Thru These Architects Eyes" is clearly my nomination for the second single. And the Roxy-Music-like "Strangers When We Meet" is a disarmingly conventional end to the opus, jarring in the same way that the open countryside at the end of the studio cut of Blade Runner always felt inappropriate. The monologues are even pretty interesting, varying from unnerving to hilarious, Bowie's overacted delivery meshing weirdly with the thick (and undisguised) processing used to make his voice sound nominally like somebody (or something) else's.
In the end I'm left oscillating uncertainly over this album. On the one hand, every time I play it I'm more impressed by what I hear, and find more aural details that delight and fascinate me. On the other hand, though, every time I get more interested in it, I find myself trying to reward it by delving into the nominal subject once more, and every time I do that I just get angry again. I'm considering throwing the package away. Removing the CD from the special sleeve is kind of cumbersome to begin with, so I think a blank jewel case would be an improvement both artistically and practically. Or, actually, now that I think about it, I believe I have a small frame around here somewhere in which the picture of Bowie with fish taped to him would fit perfectly...
Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories: Tails
Tails, Lisa Loeb's long-anticipated debut, is about as far from Outside as you can get, in terms of media ambition, within the confines of a major-label CD release. I'd been looking forward to hearing this album for quite a while, though not for the reason that I assume Geffen is banking on. "Stay", Loeb's Reality Bites-soundtrack hit-out-of-nowhere from rather long ago now, struck me as pleasant and inoffensive, but little more than that. There were several things about it, and Loeb's predicament, though, that placed this album in a unique context for me. First, I really don't understand how "Stay" became such a big hit. Of course, I usually don't understand what most people see in most huge hits, but this was a particularly egregious example of a song that seemed to me to be undeniably unremarkable. Second, I don't remember the last time anybody had so much commercial success based on one song. I don't mean one hit, I mean one song, period. Loeb didn't even have a b-side for the single, this song was literally the whole of it. Living up to a hit is hard enough; the task of living up to a totally isolated song seemed so daunting to me that I almost had to buy the album just to find out whether she pulled it off or not.
Third, though, I happened to have a little indirect personal involvement in Lisa Loeb, though I didn't realize it until some time after I started hearing the song. She came up in some discussion of music at work one day, and one of my colleagues revealed that he had gone to college with Lisa. When he said that she'd been a singer even then, and had performed in some sort of folk duo for a while, the name suddenly clicked, and I realized that I went to college with her older brother Ben. In fact, he and I taught Princeton Review SAT-prep classes together for a while, which he drove us to, and he took every possible opportunity, car rides emphatically being one, to make people listen to tapes of "Liz and Lisa", his sister's group. I remember thinking, at the time, that the pair were pleasant, but a little ordinary. The combination of a personal connections, however remote, and the knowledge that Loeb actually did have more experience than just one song, made me yet more interested.
And then, as the record's release-date approached, I saw the video for its lead single, "Do You Sleep?", a few times, which supplemented my resolve to buy the album with two more points: Fourth, the song had a nice, if easy, chorus, with churning electric guitar supporting a slow, anthemic vocal part. Fifth, though, the song and the video both made Loeb seem so plainly unsuited for chart stardom that my heart immediately went out to her. In the video she looks like an awkward eight-year-old, totally incongruous and self-conscious standing on a water-lined soundstage set concocted by some video-hack adult vainly attempting to make her look mature and sexy. When the chorus kicks in she half-crouches in such an unconvincing imitation of passion that I thought she was about to bolt off the screen. And even with the picture off, the song itself sounds for all the world like something Suzanne Vega's parents found in the back of her closet under a stack of S.E. Hinton books, an earnest but somewhat artless exercise in anxious poetry. The thought of the music industry's robot-behemoth machine bearing down on this fragile little thing was horrifying, and chivalry, if nothing else, demanded that I buy at least one copy just as a gesture of protectiveness.
And sure enough, this is an album as vulnerable and unprepared for fame as you're ever likely to hear. Loeb wrote all the songs herself, and in such top-ten cast-of-thousands company as Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey, or even Sheryl Crow, this puts her at a crushing disadvantage. The uncluttered arrangements given these songs by her and Juan Patino's production, and Nine Stories' straightforward backing, tend to deflect the listener's focus to the lyrics, and Lisa's sincere sentimentality just isn't fortified to support the crush of the crowd. If the critic-wolves have been circling for two years waiting to get back at her for "Stay", this album amounts pretty much to dropping her out of a helicopter into the center of the pack with a note pinned to her blouse asking the wolves to please keep her warm, because she is susceptible to bad colds.
Which isn't to say that I don't like it. If "Stay" had never existed, and Lisa and Juan had assembled this album by borrowing money from family members, and had a couple thousand copies pressed up to sell after coffeehouse gigs, it would be something its sponsors could exhibit proudly. The songs are uniformly agreeable, and the occasional bits of aggressive guitar, which in this major-label setting seem like calculated pleas for alternative-radio airplay, would in a self-produced context have to (and get to) justify themselves. Loeb's lyrics, instead of having to defend literate-folk claims that she never really made, would just be sweet, and the many nice touches lurking in them (like "Like a Gothic staple", in "It's Over"; "First by mind, then by music / You'll make this all less confusing", in "Snow Day"; "You smoked with the ghost in the back of my head", in "Do You Sleep?"; "You bring me blankets for the wall of my forts.", in "Alone"; and "Some of us hover when we weep", in "Stay") would be engaging sparkles, not rare breaks in more strained usual fare like "Don't stultify. / Don't hold me high.", "She can't tell me that all of the love songs have been written, / 'cause she's never been in love with you before", "Did you ever notice there are so many people in bands in the city?" and "You are my Jesus boy, you're laying on a bedly cross". The jovial sway of "Snow Day", the jerky crunch of "Taffy", the delicate verses and driving chorus of "Do You Sleep?", the soft grace of "Sandalwood", the stiff clomp of "Alone", the "Manic Monday"-ish chime of "Waiting for Wednesday", and the bouncy good humor of "Garden of Delights" would all seem like endearingly unjaded moments of inspiring potential, rather than a gang of geeky amateurs miscast as Geffen's next army of world domination.
What you make of this album, then, is very much up to you. If you expect a masterwork, in either the artistic or commercial senses, I bet you'll be disappointed. If you expect an unaffected album by somebody just graduating from hand-lettered cassette cases, though, somebody who would have made this album even if nobody but her friends had ever heard "Stay", and somebody who will probably go on to make a dozen albums better than this one, out of nothing but simple love for doing it, then you might be charmed and pleased. And wouldn't you rather be charmed and pleased?