After his death in January it has become rather fashionable to drag up forgotten albums in David Bowie’s vast catalogue and present them in a new, positive light. I suppose that with every music publication scrambling to rate his entire output and surf the waves of sadness it’s no surprise that people were quick to raise Earthling up alongside the likes of Diamond Dogs (especially as both were self produced). A slightly knee jerk reaction; Earthling is clearly not Diamond Dogs but then again it never pretended to be. It stands distinct and alone. His ‘millennium’ album. The bridge between the noise of 1.Outside and the songwriting of hours… Of course, all this is illustrative misdirection and sometimes words don’t do something justice. As you hit play and ‘Little Wonder‘ assaults the senses with it’s bass drops and skittering snare patterns you know instinctively that this is classic Bowie (his heavily affected English accent and chord progressions see to that). This single presents a slight of hand, ostensibly setting the listener up for this new ‘Jungle‘ persona (one not helped by Bowie claiming influence from pioneers The Prodigy) before ‘Looking for Satellites‘ baits the switch. It’s heavy and processed but strip it of the production and you’ll find it pleasingly regular. So the album continues on gleefully; following a pattern of the same songs in new clothes. I have an utterly subjective love for this album, I always have. It reminds me of long N64 summers with my closest friends. I implore you all to listen to it immediately and unwaveringly. Earthling gets an Appraisal thumbs up.
“Hang on” I hear you say, “Isn’t it a little early for conclusions?”. Yes. Yes it is. Like Bowie himself I’m using Earthling as bait. Here comes the switch.
Look at that cover. What is the most striking feature? Alexander McQueen‘s frock coat, obviously. Alexander McQueen’s Union Flag frock coat. Bowie standing like Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, staring out at a digitally altered Albion, clad in the flag. There are always dangers in reading into insignificant details, especially when the source is no longer around to refute them; but it is fairly safe to say that Britain was on his mind. You hear it in the London enunciation of his words, the references to Boy’s Own magazine, the title of ‘Battle for Britain‘ and even the exterior critique within ‘I’m Afraid With Americans‘. The lack of subtlety is impressive. Bowie is reclaiming his roots at the turn of the millennium, letting the future’s uncertainty tinge Earthling at every step. We find ourselves in a similar time now as questions of identity and loyalty are being co-opted into pithy attacks against transnational unions. The Scottish independence referendum has already caused a rift between the home nations and forced many British people to choose sides; you are either Scottish or other and heaven forbid you acknowledge any ancestry you may have on either side of the border. So it happens again with Europe. It’s the same ‘us v. them’ rhetoric that prefers running away from the problem instead of actively trying to fix it. It is hateful and draining.
Of all the arguments for and against, the worst are those that involve identity. The UKIP view of an ever increasing Europe destroying the ‘British’ way of life and being innately incompatible with our ‘British’ values. This is idiotic. Against the SNP‘s best effort I still remain British, I will always remain British. My values are cultural, not political. Indeed, British culture (that great underfunded bastion of soft power) is something that thrives as a direct result of being integrated with Europe. Our music is respected and loved the world over and the space and freedom we allow our musicians (if not the pay) makes our little island a brilliant destination for the talented of the continent. The positive feedback loop this creates (external cultures influencing our own who in turn influence others etc) has given us arguably some of the most creative cities in the world. It is foolhardy to try and return to a littler Britain because it doesn’t exist. If you pull up the drawbridge then our culture will turn insular and lose much of the anarchic creativity that defines it. Equally we don’t need to hem ourselves in to be able to feel pride in our national character. Bowie knew this. For all his globetrotting, Bowie remained British. Not for any nationalistic, flag-waving, “we’re better than everyone” purpose, but because he simply was. His mind was a direct product of the culture. His creativity a direct product of the culture. A culture he held dear to his heart and one that he returned to when an uncertain future presented itself. But a culture that never constrained him with a false definition. Culture by its very nature evolves and has a restless spirit that is un-tameable. It has no border and it has no codex. British culture is part of the greater European culture which is part of a greater Western culture which is, logically, part of the greatest World culture. It doesn’t stand alone. It never has.
I don’t claim to know which way Bowie would have leaned on the subject, to do so would be grossly inappropriate. But from finding the clues in Earthling and judging by his opinion on our previous referendum we can make an educated guess. In times of great uncertainty we can only look to those we respect. My respect for Bowie is obvious; I am thankful that he continues to be there when I need him. Even in death.