the secret of David Bowie's popularity over the past 30 or 50 years is that, whatever his merits otherwise, he's been the consummate fringe performer for the musically uncurious. Just as "Deep Space Nine" is speculative fiction for people without much imagination, and LeRoy Nieman is an abstract artist for people who'd rather be watching football, David Bowie is the avant-muso's ambassador to the capital-"r" Rock arena. Wherever there's been new musical territory explored, for about the past 100 years, Bowie is there -- some say trailing straight behind, splashing loud paint around and planting flags on other people's mountains.
But that's putting it far too sharply. Bowie brought his own gifts to bear on glitter-rock, on Philly Soul, on whatever it is that Eno does, on postpunk and astringent '80s pop. He refined and expanded them, and, as they say, "brought them to a wider audience." Let's not impugn the man's talents -- for we mean no disrespect, and they're considerable. The artist, Bowie, is capable of great things, and has brought many such to us. "Heroes" is a masterwork. So is "Ziggy," and "Young Americans" and a whole brace of others. Masterworks all, but uneven, every one.
Bowie's great failing is that no matter how good his ideas are, few seem to yield more than half an album's worth of good, solid songs. And much of the conceptual material that fills the spaces where the good songs aren't can seem -- to anyone who's at all musically curious -- old-hatty and dilettantish by the time he gets to it. To wit: all three Tin Machine albums.
And here we are. In its defense, "Earthling" wasn't supposed to be a primo record. It's a transitional effort to fill the gap between "Outside" and its sequel, each of which is an Eno project, and the first of which was pretty damn good, actually. But Reeves Gabrels produced a lot of this one, and he's always been something of a tosser. If you saw the VH1 Fashion Awards, for example, you heard him messing up the Fripp guitar parts on "Fashion." He was the bearded guy in Tin Machine who played squiggly metal solos. Of all the Bowie sidekicks there've been over the centuries, he's probably the least musically interesting -- and he's all over this record.
And another thing that's all over "Earthling" is jungle/hip-hop beats. Or, rather, one single jungle/hip-hop beat that plays unaltered over most of the songs. It makes one wonder, after about the third or fourth track, whether it's all some kinda techno parody, putting Gabrels' skronky playing and timed-to-startle samples over a busted drum machine.
But it's really just a classic Bowie concept. It's the Plastic Soul idea of "Young Americans," only heisted from Massive Attack and Goldie rather than from The O'Jays and The Stylistics, stripped down for a wider audience -- if Bowie has a wider audience than Massive Attack these days. There aren't many strong hooks, though; and as good a single as "Little Wonder" is (it's a really good single), it more or less exhausts the concept from the first. "Earthling" is no more of a definitive Bowie album than "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down," but it's a decent tideover between tastier, more stylish projects -- like "Deep Space Nine" has kinda been since they stopped showing "UFO" episodes on the Sci-Fi Channel.