Should any Significant Albums series be looking at the 1970’s, Bowie’s constantly-shifting silhouette would be tagged across the walls of that decade as if the ubiquitous spray-painted logo of a particularly hip and pernicious underground movement. As it is, anything post-1980’s Scary Monsters has to be questioned against a whole range of musical and thematic criteria – from fandom’s perspective, the terrain his career curve took him was particularly unforgiving. Either arid and parched or frozen and desolate – it’s no secret that many of us turned off until Black Tie White Noise or the Buddha Of Suburbia soundtrack.
Then came Outside. There are several, almost contradictory ways of looking at this record – perhaps hinted at when swallowing the the full title, The Nathan Adler Diaries – 1. Outside. Thus: failed, ungainly dystopian concept album, vs the long-overdue rekindling of the Bowie/Eno axis. Dynamic post-modern assemblage vs hackneyed sub-Burroughs pseudo-babble framed by a semi-improvised, hit and miss musicology. All of which I could magic into convincing arguments, and none of which would impinge upon the fact this is Bowie’s most alluring record for many a year. Because – regardless of any reason why the world never saw a suite of Nathan Adler-themed discs, or the fact that the twisted spoken-word interludes don’t work – whole chunks of this zap and tingle. There’s a higher intelligence at work here; something that transcends such flaccid ideas as wouldn’t it be great if Jack Nicholson’s character from Chinatown was transplanted into some maladjusted, Blade Runner future? At which point: the grinding exotica of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’. The speakeasy vibes of ‘The Motel’. The soothing, cued desperation of ‘I’m Deranged’. This is not the David Bowie that drips with the same degree of significance the artist twenty years his junior would be exuding, but by unravelling this record’s complex hues, it certainly rewards.
The other reference to ’70’s that I have up my sleeve relates to The Dandy Warhols. Because Dandy’s Rule OK is all primary colours and cartoon inflexion, reminiscent of the psychedelic tonality of Hanna-Barbera animation circa 1972. There are a few albums of this vintage that it’s easy to associate with warmth, tenderness, cheekiness, and variants there-of (Mobile Safari by The Pastels springs to mind. Life by The Cardigans. And for very different reasons: The Fall’s Cerebral Caustic); The premise here, however, is that no ’95 release exudes these qualities in quite the same concentrations as the Dandy’s début. This is charm generated from its sprawling, unfocused stoner-rock nature – toned and compact aren’t adjectives to wield here – and whilst much of their later material suffers from being too consciously commercial (even if, somewhat perversely, they were never commercial enough for a Capitol Records desperate to turn them into a singles band), this particular LP is all the better for being rough around the edges. Highlight: undoubtedly ‘Genius’, which manges to be simultaneously engaging, brittle, and as high as a kite.
(At this point I should also mention Methodrone, the second album by the Dandy’s dark flip-side The Brian Jonestown Massacre… more of whom in subsequent Significant Albums).
1995 was quite the year for first-time records. The eponymous release from Drugstore. Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot by the much-missed Sparklehorse. And then the début Garbage album, which sounds like something exposed to blunt trauma. A production/mixing process of gigawatt proportions, the sound stretched, compressed, manipulated and manoeuvred in tertiary – how a band comprising three well-known producers could ever permit such over-engineering sits well beyond my comprehension. Yet I like this record – probably far more than I’d usually let on, straddling as it does the barrier between commerciality and fuzzy logic. With ex-Goodbye Mr MacKenzie keyboardist Shirley Manson at the apex of the band’s aesthetic, what could have been an exercise in studio-centric muscle flexing became the refined exploitation of focal point, Manson as some Weird Science concoction of perfect front woman: intelligent, confident, elegant, demure, sultry – that rare combination of role model and object of desire.
Oh, and there are songs, too. The stop/start energy of ‘Supervixen’. The off-kilter ramifications of ‘Not My Idea’. And, of course, ‘Only Happy When It Rains’; a great pop song, all pout and recalcitrance. My biggest gripe with all this will always be with the production – it permeates a sheen of awkward datedness, as if there’s too much paint on the canvas – yet this is decidedly one of those albums in which the re-visitation was a pleasure.
Which is probably a good place as any to insert the intermission. Part Two of 1995’s Significant Albums up next, where amongst other things we’ll discover if Think With Your Heart by Debbie Gibson will have made the cut.
David Bowie / I’m Deranged
The Dandy Warhols / Genius
The Pastels / Yoga
Garbage / Supervixen