Hallo Spaceboy: David Bowie’s Outside at 25
Brian Eno and The Duke delve into The Nathan Adler Diaries for their most adventurous collaboration
By the time David Bowie released his milestone album 1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hypercycle) on September 25, 1995, his early accessibility factor had long since diminished.
Landmark efforts such as Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans and the vastly underrated Tonight were no longer at the forefront of his musical mindset, having given way to the decidedly experimental sounds of his ‘70s so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” a series of albums which found him indulging his more avant-garde inclinations with his then-collaborator Brian Eno. It’s not that Bowie had entirely abandoned the idea of making commercial music — his landmark songs still dominated his live sets — but being the musical chameleon that he was throughout the bulk of his career, his interests and ambitions were clearly focused on maintaining a more progressive posture.
Bowie and Eno reconnected at Bowie’s wedding to Iman Abudmajid in 1992, and the two immediately exchanged musical ideas that were then transferred to the dance floor at the ceremony itself. At that point however, the music took an unexpected turn when the decision was made to turn it into a concept album of sorts, one that evolved from a diary of Bowie’s own activities to an account about a fictional psychiatric patient named Nathan Adler. It seemed an unlikely basis for an album, but Bowie and Eno successfully embellished that premise with a variety of treatments, propulsive rhythms, drones, predominant percussion effects, incidental instrumentation, spoken word segments, and a fully-fleshed out narrative that left not only an ominous overtone, but also a sometimes menacing milieu. The music flowed in a continuous surge of sound and expression, a forward thrust that left little room for melody, but shared an intriguing atmospheric ambiance instead. Bowie’s cool croon provided a somewhat disjointed narrative among the ever-shifting tones and textures, offering occasional hints of Diamond Dogs in terms of its provocative premise and the big beat that dominated his earlier dance-oriented efforts.
That said, Outside offered little in the way of cohesive melodies that might have found a life beyond the song cycle itself. The title track, “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town,” “The Motel” and “No Control” were the tracks that came across most emphatically, although the choice to extract “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” “Strangers When We Meet” and “Hallo Spaceboy (later remixed by the Pet Shop Boys) as singles seemed to find favor with a more adventurous audience. Nevertheless, those attuned to Bowie’s once tuneful melodies came away as bewildered as they were dazzled at the overt indulgence and unusual amalgam of concept and creativity.
For most, it was not what one would call an easy listen, and the critical response confirmed that opinion. The reviews were less than overly enthusiastic, and the chart reach didn’t come close to Bowie’s earlier offerings, given that it failed to make the Top 20 in the U.S. and just barely hit the Top 10 in the U.K.
Bowie’s initial idea was too continue to follow his theme with a sequence of albums that would carry over until 1999 and offer some insights into his thoughts as they evolved through the end of the century. However that idea was abandoned, as was the possibility of recording a companion collection called Inside. His next album, Earthling didn’t fare any better, and it would be another few years until Bowie reclaimed his role as a creative force with commercial credence.
His 2013 outing The Next Day found him a consistent presence at the top of the international charts, leaving it to his final masterwork, Blackstar, to make it to number one worldwide.
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