“Bit of a dark spiral with no end, I thought” – Algeria Touchshriek
For brevity’s sake, I’ll leave my thoughts on the first three decades of Bowie for another time, except to say that his 70s output is among the greatest run of any artist in history and his 80s output is… not. Even in his worst decade, the man remained a fascinating enigma, screaming his lungs out over Japanese spoken word and Robert Fripp’s angle grinder on one album, giving us “Let’s Dance” on the next. His tacky 80s pop set the stage for a massive comeback that wouldn’t really come until The Next Day or Blackstar, if it came at all; which leaves the 90s and 00s as somewhat stopgap decades, a time period most Bowie purists consider to be when he released stuff that was better than Never Let Me Down but worse than most of the rest. Conversely, though, this stopgap holds two of Bowie’s absolute best; and the first of the two sounds little like pretty much anything else.
So: Outside, or to be pedantic, 1. Outside. A frustrating listen from the outset, if you go in with the knowledge that it’s the first in a pentalogy that was never completed, one inspired by the fear of the upcoming millennium and built on a concept about art crime serial killings investigated by a noir detective who talks out of the side of the mouth. Even writing it makes it sound like a Blade Runner sequel got mixed up in an X-Files episode. It’s not hard to imagine the heavily accented private eye protagonist as some alternate universe variation of Twin Peaks’ Phillip Jeffries, condemned to solve art crimes in a steampunk Oxford Town until he transforms into a toaster or something. Bowie’s first collaboration with Brian Eno since Lodger sees the two fearlessly treading new ground interspersed with just brushstrokes of the old – the inimitable Mike Garson lends his insane chops on the piano as an echo of Aladdin Sane, while the storyline hews closest to Diamond Dogs’ future legend of sex, death and rock ‘n’ roll, albeit with the Orwellian warnings of 1984 replaced by weary acceptance of the new age. 1984 had come and gone, and maybe there were worse things on the horizon than even Orwell had ever imagined. Pretty fuckin’ grim.
At almost 76 minutes short, almost nothing on Outside feels extraneous or unnecessary. The much-misunderstood interludes provide blackly comic insights into the story which often dip into the heartbreaking – in the case of “Baby Grace – A Horrid Cassette”, where Bowie impersonates a 14-year-old girl about to be dismembered and displayed in a museum, her death no longer pointless if it can be recognised as art. Bowie demonstrates his unearthly ability to tap into the mind of any kind of outsider with “Algeria Touchshriek”, which sketches out the heartbreaking loneliness of a ‘broken man’ with a vividity that makes it strange kinfolk with one of his lost gems, “Conversation Piece”. But the songs, people, the songs – “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, “We Prick You” and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” all feature some of Bowie’s best ever choruses over pounding industrial machines, while the lengthier cuts “A Small Plot of Land” and “The Motel” demonstrate Mike Garson’s ability to provide a shimmering piano canvas to underpin the saddest and freakiest of Bowie’s lyrical meanderings.
The most shocking thing of all? The Outside we know was the result of a compromise to make a more accessible album, which for 1995 Bowie apparently still meant 75 minutes of punishing industrial semi-improvisation. Outside is really just a highlight reel from The Leon Suites, three 20+ minute tapestries of music which made up the album Bowie wanted to release before the label stepped in. The Leon Suites appeared on the internet just after Bowie’s death, and the simplest descriptor for them is fucking insanity: if the offputting segues and jarring tonal shifts on Outside regular don’t do it for you, you might be better off skipping the maelstrom of jazzy piano improvisation, malfunctioning electronic sound effects, and whacked-out accents that make Pink Floyd’s “The Trial” sound tame in this 73-minute monstrosity.
“Suite 1: I Am With Name” is the most familiar of the three, with its first movement having been transmuted mostly intact into Outside’s “Ramona A. Stone/I Am With Name”, and with embryonic versions of the “Nathan Adler” and “Algeria Touchshriek” segues also present. The best part of this suite sees Bowie full-on rapping over claustrophobic chords, once in Ramona’s exaggerated, mechanical English accent, a remnant of some hideous parallel universe where Bowie collaborated with Death Grips. “Suite 2: Leon Takes Us Outside” is arguably the most focused of the three, seeing Nathan Adler and Ramona dancing around in each other’s peripheries, a gumshoe detective cliché and a narcissistic futurephiliac monster colliding again and again in search for the answer to whether death can be art. (The second most terrifying moment of the whole project comes somewhere in the middle here, as Bowie employs a progressively unhinged shriek to bellow “I’d rather be chrome! Than stay here at home!”) As the ridiculous, unbelievable characters struggle for the spotlight, it’s not hard to imagine the entire mess of a storyline as just an excuse for something simpler, nastier; an exorcism of Bowie’s doubts and demons, the personalities he was always trying to emulate with his fashion all coming out in a flurry of improvised dialogue like an audio transcription of a man possessed. Ramona’s deadly obsession with staying young is the voice of everyone’s inner narcissist, concerned about their appearance and nothing else; “The Enemy is Fragile” features a pompous British salesman trying to sell CD technology to a cheering crowd, not inconceivable as a reflection of the aging, irrelevant rock star Bowie so feared becoming.
Basically, the case of The Leon Suites might be one of the few where intervention by the label was a good move; the three uncut pieces are as hard to listen to as they are totally unique, and even a musical chameleon like Bowie probably would not have been able to get away with a release like this in the mid-90s. Outside may be a compromise, but it’s a welcome one, retaining the surreal Lynchian horror of the Suites re-packaged inside a set of excellent songs. (Also, there’s a beautiful irony to an album about art crime itself being stripped down to a more accessible and less ‘pure’ form). It’s a segment of a never-realised idea, the first album in a cycle that was quickly abandoned, but with 150 minutes of music between Outside and The Leon Suites, it doesn’t exactly feel incomplete. I often think Outside is the finest album David Bowie ever released: if not, it’s a forgotten 90s masterpiece, a relic sadly surrounded by Bowie’s half-hearted shots at accessible house and jungle/DnB. Outside is one of a kind: both forward-thinking and terrified of the future, deeply twisted and deeply hilarious, in love with itself as much as it drowns in self-loathing.