David Bowie’s a very versatile chap, easily adapting his style to suit the fashions of the day. A perfect example of this is Little Wonder which draws upon the jungle/dance music that was so prevalent in the late ’90s. You don’t get a gradual introduction, it just blasts into life at 200bpm with a drumbeat that might have been stolen from The Prodigy. If that’s the verse, then the chorus is a more conventional rock beat at half the tempo. It sort of bounces between these two styles throughout the song, but I find it hard to know where it’s supposed to be going, whether the structure was planned or it it just fell into place by accident.
Looking For Satellites is a fairly pleasant song – the “Boyzone” namecheck really dates it, which is unfortunate. The vocals in the verse remind me of Damon Albarn in his later years – possibly a combination of Bowie’s accent with the way the vocals are processed. Furthermore, the way he screams “satellites” brings to mind Paul Draper – again, it’s a combination of the way he sings, and the distortion applied to his voice for that word. Beneath this, the song trundles along happily, built around a cute little synth pattern that manages to stop short of getting annoying. The climax is a soaring guitar solo that seems to be always on the edge of collapse.
More jungle in Battle For Britain (the Letter), and Bowie’s really laying the Cockney accent on thick in this song, which never quite feels right. It’s got a fairly funky jazzy piano solo, which is the highlight of the song, but all in all it feels like the ingredients just didn’t mix together properly.
More of the late-Blur influence in Seven Years In Tibet, the verse really does sound like something off of Think Tank, with a steady bassline that still goes off into some curious little corners at places. The chorus is a very different animal though, and animal is definitely the word, it roars and bellows and tries to smash its way out of its cage. Especially effective is how the first chorus is instrumental, it gives you a taster without using up all of the dynamic possibilities too soon. It reaches full belt in the outro, the instruments gradually getting dirtier and uglier and losing their coherency. Smashing stuff.
I think perhaps my favourite on the album is Dead Man Walking, lots of cheesy synth sounds atop a disco-rock foundation. It’s unrelentingly driving, and not only does it have an incredibly catchy chorus, but it builds up to it so elegantly. Lots of great bass work from Gail Ann Dorsey on this song, her approach of keeping things simple, and then throwing in an awesome fill here and there nicely squares with my own ethos. You also don’t notice at first, because it happens so gradually, but the song transitions from being completely electronic at the start, to completely live at the end. It gives the song a really solid shape.
I’m not big on Telling Lies, there’s more gratuitous jungle beats, and the chorus starts to get tedious, very quickly. I just end up listening to the bass fills and ignoring the rest of the song, because they’re really the only bit of it that I find interesting.
The Last Thing You Should Do is a curious little one, in a good way. The verse consists of intentionally lifelessly-administered vocals, singing “nobody laughs anymore” etc, over a lazy soft synth – all very good. Then there’s just this huge racket as all the guitars scream at you, and you’re ambushed with industrial-sounding noise and “yeah!” shouts for a while, before the verse returns, same as before, but you can still hear all the loud instruments waiting behind a park bench, poised to jump out and assault you again when the cue comes. You’ll be waiting forever, because it never does.
I’m also a bit of a fan of I’m Afraid Of Americans. The verse is short, it’s lazy and sleazy and squelchy, and then the chorus beats you across the head with raw grit, and a simplicity that borders on sing-alongable. That said, I’m not blind to the song’s flaw, which is that it seems to be based around one or two ideas that have been stretched out to fill five minutes.
We’ve reached the final track, Law (Earthlings On Fire). I like the way that this song has been constructed, the rhythmic foundation is an unceasing throbbing, and layered on top of that are a huge variety of sounds, from squelchy things to brass stabs and alien noises and guitar crunches, dancing around in the stereo mix like UFOs scattering across the planet’s surface and obliterating mankind.
What a lovely note to end on.
Hits from this album: Little Wonder was fairly successful as a single
My favourite song from this album: Dead Man Walking has so much going for it, it couldn’t be anything else.
Next up: Hours…