Someday I’ll get my hands on a hard copy of Outside and immerse myself in whatever information is hidden there. In the meantime I’ll just immerse myself in David Bowie at his most disturbing. Outside was one of those records that smacked me right in my impressionable adolescent brain with its deep ideas and macabre aesthetic. It was the Bowie iteration most suitable for a kid who read and reread Helter Skelter. It hasn’t become any less relevant in the intervening years. I still ask myself just how much does human creativity balance out human depravity, and to what degree those things feed into each other. We’re also in a brave new media world that allows ritualistic displays of public suffering to become entertainment. I mean, the psychotic breakdown of Britney Spears wasn’t intentionally a piece of performance art or guerrilla theatre, but it was one of the definitive pop culture moments of the 2000’s, and that’s actually a fairly mild example of human sacrifice-as-pop-culture. We really need to ask ourselves a lot of questions about what we’re entertained by and at what expense. The way we’re going, ritualistic art murder is not just around the corner, it’s about to be the latest commodity.
Perhaps I’m one of a few, but the opening notes of David Bowie’s Outside give me the shivers. Hindsight offers new perspectives on a great artist’s work, and in coming years, Outside is going to be held up as one of Bowie’s most ambitious achievements. For one thing, it’s a culmination and fulfillment of the experimental techniques he and Brian Eno pioneered in the Berlin years. Whereas those acclaimed records were sonically daring, emotionally fractured, and only loosely thematic, Outside is fully conceptualized. Bowie and Eno returned to the use of flash cards, oblique strategies, characterization, in – studio improvisation, multi-media, cut and paste narrative and other techniques they’d originally developed in the 70’s. This time they tied it together in a self-contained narrative of near-future dystopia, with commentary on the value of art and human life in a deteriorated, image and media saturated society not far off from our own. Bowie initially talked of Outside as the first in a series of albums documenting the final five years of the millennium, which he admitted was ‘over-ambitious’ but also ‘a once-in-a-lifetime chance.’ Like many of Bowie’s overly ambitious concepts, it was never followed through. However, the Outside sessions were meant to yield enough material for a trilogy, and that material is presumably just waiting for somebody to come dust it off. Perhaps, sometime soon, Brian Eno may take it upon himself to finish the project. (If he doesn’t, sooner or later someone else will.) Although it’s a bitter disappointment that David Bowie, with his famously short attention span, lost interest in this particular project, for my money, his entire career was a once-in-a-lifetime series of overly-ambitious albums documenting the end of the millennium in a dystopian science fiction near-reality parallel to our own.
Now, obviously, it’s grossly unfair to ask someone to pick their top five David Bowie albums and stick with it, but if I absolutely must had to do it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Outside would definitely be on that list. It’s a thorny and impenetrable concept album, the concept of which I used to think I understood, but now I feel vague about it. (Must revisit liner notes.) It still gets points for atmospheric depravity, and being a great reflector for teenage angst. Leave it to me to want to hang out in the very darkest corner of the pantheon. But I think it’s monumental.