Detailed Pedia

Earthling (album)

Earthling
Earthling (album).jpg
Studio album by
Released3 February 1997 (1997-02-03)
RecordedApril, August–October 1996
Studio
Genre
Length48:57
Label
Producer
David Bowie chronology
BBC Sessions 1969–1972 (Sampler)
(1996)
Earthling
(1997)
The Deram Anthology 1966–1968
(1997)
David Bowie studio albums chronology
Outside
(1995)
Earthling
(1997)
Hours
(1999)
Singles from Earthling
  1. "Telling Lies"
    Released: 4 November 1996
  2. "Little Wonder"
    Released: 27 January 1997
  3. "Dead Man Walking"
    Released: April 1997
  4. "Seven Years in Tibet"
    Released: August 1997
  5. "I'm Afraid of Americans"
    Released: 14 October 1997

Earthling (stylised as EART HL I NG) is the 21st studio album by English musician David Bowie. It was released on 3 February 1997 through RCA Records in the United Kingdom, Virgin Records in the United States, and Arista Records/BMG in other territories. Mostly self-produced by Bowie, it was primarily recorded from August to October 1996 at New York City's Looking Glass Studios following the conclusion of the Outside Tour. Bowie composed the tracks with Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati, who are credited as co-producers, with Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zack Alford providing overdubs later. Outtakes from the sessions were later issued on the Is It Any Wonder? EP in 2020.

Developing musical styles previously explored on Outside (1995), Earthling showcases an electronica-influenced sound partly inspired by the industrial and drum and bass culture of the 1990s, further exhibiting jungle and techno styles. Bowie himself compared its aggressive nature to Scary Monsters (1980). Lyrically, the tracks express themes of alienation and spirituality. One of the tracks, "I'm Afraid of Americans", originated during the Outside sessions, and was remixed for release as a single by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, who appeared in its music video. The artwork depicts Bowie wearing a Union Jack coat co-designed by Alexander McQueen.

Before its release, Bowie celebrated his 50th birthday with a concert featuring numerous celebrity guests. Upon release, music critics viewed Earthling positively. While many highlighted the music as innovative, others noted a lack of cohesiveness and felt Bowie was following current trends. Commercially, it performed better than its predecessor, reaching the top ten in several countries. Its accompanying singles featured numerous remixes and were supported with music videos. Bowie promoted the album through various television appearances and on the Earthling Tour later in the year, performances of which have been released on live albums. After maintaining a large media profile in 1997, Bowie retreated the following year before starting work with Gabrels on his next album Hours (1999).

In later decades, critics and biographers view Earthling with mixed assessments. Some criticise it for lacking innovation in a time when the drum and bass craze was already well-established; others consider it a worthwhile addition to an underrated decade. Gabrels later considered it his favourite collaboration with Bowie. In retrospective lists ranking Bowie's studio albums from worst to best, Earthling has placed in the middle to low tier. The album was reissued with bonus tracks in 2004 and remastered in 2021 for inclusion on the box set Brilliant Adventure (1992–2001).

Background and recording

An older man with a gray beard playing a red guitar against a green backlight
Guitarist Reeves Gabrels (pictured in 2012) was one of Bowie's primary collaborators for Earthling.

David Bowie supported his 20th studio album Outside on the Outside Tour, which lasted from September 1995 to February 1996. The lineup for the tour included guitarists Reeves Gabrels and Carlos Alomar, pianist Mike Garson, and new additions drummer Zack Alford and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey. Bowie's positive relationship with the new band was the springboard for his next studio record. He told Alan Yentob in 1996: "They're probably the most enjoyable set of musicians I've worked with. It's the greatest fun and satisfaction I've had with a band since the Spiders."

A few months after the tour's conclusion, Bowie and the band—minus Alomar, who departed due to dissatisfaction—played a series of festivals during the summer from June to July. Gabrels later told biographer Paul Trynka:

That summer was the end of Outside and [the] beginning of Earthling. I had written about six tracks, more like electronic stuff, on my laptop. I was trying to write without guitar at that point because we'd been crossing paths with bands like Underworld and [the] Prodigy.

In April 1996, Bowie began recording a new track, "Telling Lies", alone at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland; it was the last time he worked at Mountain. The song, which expanded on the jungle and drum and bass rhythms found on the Outside tracks "I'm Deranged" and "We Prick You", made its debut at the summer shows. Speaking with Mojo magazine in March 1997, Bowie stated: "[I] used it as a blueprint of where I wanted the Earthling album to go... We just kept re-moulding it throughout the tour." Also recorded around May was an untitled piece containing the lyric "dead men don't talk" that, like "Telling Lies", pre-dated the Earthling material.

Initial sessions

There was no aforethought. It was very immediate, very spontaneous, and it virtually put itself together. Writing and recording, two and a half weeks, and then a couple of weeks of mixing... it was really very fast.

—David Bowie on the recording process for Earthling

Shortly after the conclusion of the festival dates in late July 1996, Bowie and the band began recording Earthling in August. For the location, Bowie chose Looking Glass Studios in New York City, which was owned by composer Philip Glass. A new addition to the lineup was engineer Mark Plati, a New York native who had extensive experience at Looking Glass. Bowie himself mostly self-produced, making it his first self-produced record since Diamond Dogs (1974). He explained: "I knew exactly what I wanted. We didn't have any time to pull in a co-producer... so I just sort of went for it." Nevertheless, Plati and Gabrels were both credited as co-producers, while the former co-wrote several tracks.

Bowie and Gabrels commenced work on Earthling with Plati using demos the two had made on the road. The album was recorded entirely on hard disk, which allowed instruments and vocals to be cut and pasted at random. While Bowie focused on crafting the lyrics, using an improved version of the cut-up computer program used for Outside, Gabrels and Plati focused on the music. Plati recalled: "We were cranking [songs] out one per day. Reeves would be coming up with guitar parts and sounds, I'd be at the computer recording him or working on the arrangement, and David would be on the couch, writing the lyric. At day's end, he'd do a vocal." According to Bowie, the concept of melody was not present at this point. Instead, they tinkered with the recordings to see which combinations worked and which did not: "Once we developed a kind of mattress, then I would go into the studio and just free-associate against that." Plati was impressed with Bowie's work ethic and recalled that most of his vocal tracks were done in one take. While the sessions were still underway, the band performed four shows on the US East Coast in September 1996, where they premiered "Little Wonder" and "Seven Years in Tibet".

Overdubs

The latter half of the sessions focused on overdubs by Garson, Dorsey and Alford. Their contributions were manipulated through various studio effects, such as sampling, looping and distorting; according to biographer Chris O'Leary, Alford is heard more through sped-up loops rather than live tracks. Gabrels also utilised a Roland processor on his guitar which allowed for digital manipulation and alteration. He and Bowie used a technique they previously utilised for Outside: transferring bits of guitar to a sampling keyboard and constructing riffs from those pieces. Bowie stated: "It's real guitar, but constructed in a synthetic way. But Brian Eno got in the way – in the nicest possible way – so we didn't get to that until this album." Garson was not a fan of the material initially, as he was forced to work with set structures compared to his mostly improvisational role on Outside. For the drum tracks, Alford began by working on his own snare patterns at 120 beats per minute (bpm) which were then sped up to 160 bpm, and afterwards improvised on a real kit against the sampled patterns. Bowie's primary goal during the sessions was to combine elements of the "technological" and "organic": "That's very much how we treat the album. We kept all sampling in-house and created our own soundscape in a way."

In comparison to Outside, the majority of the tracks were written and recorded quickly, with the entire album recorded in about two and a half weeks; Bowie at one point stated it was recorded in exactly eight days. However, according to biographer Nicholas Pegg, recording lasted through October. In addition to a revamped versions of "Telling Lies" and the Outside outtake "I'm Afraid of Americans", seven new tracks appeared on the final album. Outtakes from the sessions included remakes of the Tin Machine tracks "Baby Universal", which was played on stage earlier in the year, and "I Can't Read", which was replaced by "The Last Thing You Should Do". The latter appeared on the soundtrack for the 1997 film The Ice Storm, while "Baby Universal" and "I Can't Read" later appeared on the Is It Any Wonder? EP in 2020. According to O'Leary, Earthling was initially envisioned as an EP of new tracks sequenced with the remakes and covers, but by the end of the sessions, there was enough material for a full-length album of new content.

Music and lyrics

We came into the studio specifically with the idea of trying to juxtopose all the dance styles that we'd been working with live. Jungle, aggressive rock and industrial.

—David Bowie on the album's sound

Compared to the 19 pieces found on Outside, Earthling contains only nine tracks. Additionally, Bowie stated that he found Earthling "primitive" compared to the complexity of its predecessor. Musically, the album showcases an electronica-influenced sound partly inspired by the industrial and drum and bass culture of the 1990s. Bowie had previously explored these styles on Outside, but fully embraced them for Earthling. While reviewers generally consider Earthling Bowie's "drum and bass album", biographer Marc Spitz argues that "it's simply [a] case of a veteran artist pursuing a sound with which he or she has fallen in love." Buckley agrees, further noting that only three or four tracks contain a drum and bass element. Plati later contested:

To this day, I occasionally see Earthling derided in the press as David's 'jungle' record or 'drum and bass experiment'. People are entitled to their opinions, but I do disagree. It's a Bowie record. The drum and bass sound just went through the Bowie filter, like any other Bowie album. When he coopted soul in the seventies, he didn't get that sort of grief—he was rightfully called an innovator.

Characterised by "rapid-fire bass, hailstorm percussion, flashes of distorted guitar, sampling [and] sudden dramatic pauses", drum and bass rhythms dominate "Little Wonder", "Battle for Britain (The Letter)", "Telling Lies" and "Dead Man Walking". Other reviewers have noted the presence of industrial rock, electronica, hard rock and alternative dance. Author James Perone found an emphasis on techno and jungle and considers Earthling more musically accessible than its predecessor, partially aided by "strong melodic hooks" throughout. Bowie initially compared the album's aggressive sound to 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Lyrically, Perone describes the album's overall theme as alienation. Furthermore, Pegg writes that the lyrics revisit the spiritual themes previously found on Station to Station (1976), a claim supported by Bowie himself.

Songs

"Little Wonder" was one of the first tracks Bowie and Gabrels wrote for the album. Bowie called writing the track a "ridiculous" exercise in pure stream of consciousness: "I just picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and made a line for each of the dwarves' names. And that's the song [laughs]. And then I ran out of dwarves' names, so there's new dwarves in it like 'Stinky'." Originally set to be a "nine-minute jungle electronic epic", the song was trimmed to six minutes for the album. Described by O'Leary as a combination of arena rock and electronica, it utilises percussion and power chords from the Prodigy's "Firestarter", a 1996 UK number one that assisted in bringing drum and bass rhythms to the mainstream. Pegg notes that it shifts to an almost conventional rock structure during the "so far away" chorus.

"Looking for Satellites" was the second track recorded for the album. In an interview with Mojo, Bowie described the track as "A straight, rational piece about where we find ourselves at this particular point in this era: somewhere between religion and technology, and not quite sure where to go next. It's kind of a poignant feeling, standing alone on a beach at night looking for a satellite... but what you're really looking for is an answer." It features various cut-up lyrics that were influenced by the then-recent discovery of the possibility of life on Mars. Bowie considered the lyrics "measuring the distance between the crucifixion and flying saucers". The atmosphere is said by Pegg to contain "wistful uncertainty". Gabrels' guitar solo, pieced together from multiple takes, was added in the last minute at Bowie's insistence.

According to Plati, "Battle for Britain (The Letter)" was an "attempt to do a jazz-tinged jungle track". He believed the song brought focus to the album, wherein the structures would resemble "actual songs [instead of] intense atmospheres". Characterised by various loops and distortion, the lyrics discuss Bowie's uncertainty about his own British identity, as he had not lived in the UK for two decades. The music combines techno and the alternative rock of Tin Machine, with vocal melodies and harmonies reminiscent of, in Perone's words, "a 1966 or 1967 British rock band". For the piano solo, Bowie challenged Garson to play a part based on an Igor Stravinsky piece, which he interpreted after hearing it played on a CD.

Inspired by Heinrich Harrer's autobiography of the same name, the lyrics of "Seven Years in Tibet" reflect the Chinese takeover of Tibet. It began as a Gabrels' composition titled "Brussels" and was almost scrapped by Bowie before Gabrels intervened; Bowie later described it as his favourite track on the album. Musically, the song presents a mix of genres such as new wave, grunge and R&B. According to Pegg, it is characterised by saxophone riffs, shrieking guitars, various loops and treated vocals and synthesisers.

A gray-haired man playing a guitar
Neil Young (pictured in 1996) influenced the lyrics of "Dead Man Walking" after Bowie performed at a pair of benefit concerts for the artist in October 1996.

Bowie described "Dead Man Walking" as his homage "to rock and roll that is still young while we are all growing old". As such, the lyrics reflect his thoughts on aging at this point in his career. It initially began as a tribute to actress Susan Sarandon, but took additional influences from songwriter Neil Young after Bowie, Gabrels and Dorsey performed at a pair of benefit concerts for the artist in October 1996. The music is, in Perone's words, "largely conventional dance", featuring atonal piano, sequenced keyboards and electric guitar and containing elements of Latin dance music and jazz; Pegg describes the song as "modern rock". According to Plati, the song took five days to mix: "It [began] completely programmed and by the time it's finished it's completely live."

"Telling Lies" originated during the Outside sessions. While Bowie recorded most of the track alone in April, he polished the lyrics during the actual sessions, while the band added overdubs. Both the music and lyrics represent a hybridisation of the Outside and Earthling styles, with Pegg describing the final arrangement as a blend of "a very aggressive rock sound with drum and bass". Perone, meanwhile, finds a mix of dance and alternative rock styles that is less successful than other Earthling tracks. The lyrics also feature more rhyme than other tracks, delving into topics such as gossip, exaggerations and lying. On 11 September 1996, Plati's "Feelgood Mix" of the song was released on the internet, reportedly receiving 250,000 downloads. With this release, Bowie became the first artist to release a downloadable track through the internet. Additional remixes by A Guy Called Gerald (the "Paradox Mix") and Adam F were released the same month.

"The Last Thing You Should Do" was one of the final tracks recorded for the album, primarily built using, in O'Leary's words, "discarded overdub bits". Gabrels insisted on including it on the album over the Tin Machine remakes, explaining: "Because I co-wrote both of those T.M. songs, that meant I could stand on the higher moral ground, as I was fighting against my own offspring." He argued that the track turned Earthling "from a ten-song album pastiche... to a nine-song cohesive statement". The music is primarily jungle with bits of techno, while the lyrics discuss the lack of humour and self-love in the late 20th-century. Bowie himself compared the song's music to "Sound and Vision" from his 1977 album Low. O'Leary considers it a "miniature" version of the remaining tracks and, in the context of the entire album, Perone argues the song is more successful as a standalone track.

"I'm Afraid of Americans" was originally recorded during the Outside sessions as "Dummy", featuring different lyrics; this version was released on the soundtrack for the 1995 film Showgirls. Bowie stated: "That was something that Eno and I put together, and I just didn't feel it fit Outside, so it didn't go on it. It just got left behind. So then we took just the embryo of it, and restructured it with this band." Described by Bowie as "one of those stereotypical 'Johnny' songs: Johnny does this, Johnny does that", the Earthling version contains revised lyrics, additional overdubs from the band and transposed verses. Plati explained: "We pulled things off several different reels to make this new composite. It as quite a clean-up job, not the most enjoyable." Musically, the song mixes techno styles of the 1980s and 1990s while lyrically, it presents a critique of America, in line with Bowie's 1975 track "Young Americans".

"Law (Earthlings on Fire)" was the first track recorded during the sessions. Musically, the song is unlike jungle and more, in O'Leary's words, "industrial trash-pop". Pegg describes it as a club track reminiscent of the Black Tie White Noise track "Pallas Athena" (1993), featuring various synthesiser effects with a dance-style bassline; Plati compared it to a sound collage. The lyrics convey existential concerns, using obscure references such as a quote from polymath Bertrand Russell. Pegg considers it the album's weakest track, while Perone believes it works best as commentary on the "end-of-the-millenium sense of malaise" rather than as a standalone Bowie track.

Title and packaging

A mannequin wearing a Union Jack coat
The Union Jack coat on display at the David Bowie Is exhibition in 2018.

The album title was chosen by fans at a performance in Roseland, New York during the September 1996 tour; Bowie asked the audience if the upcoming album should be titled 'Earthling' or 'Earthlings'. Discussing the title, Bowie stated that "it was supposed to describe the Earth; man and his pure habitat on Earth. And I suppose the irony isn't lost on me that it's sort of me in maybe my most worldly kind of human guise to date."

The artwork was first conceptualised during the sessions. Plati told Buckley: "Every new idea or concept would be put up on the wall. By the end of recording, the walls of the studio were filled with the artwork that would become the album." The cover portrays Bowie, back-facing the camera, wearing a tattered Union Jack coat with his hands behind his back, looking out towards the green plains of England. The photograph was taken by Frank Ockenfels in New York, then was sent to computer designer Dave De Angelis in England, who created the final cover. The idea for the coat originated from Gavin Turk's 1995 exhibit Indoor Flag. Bowie co-designed the coat with Alexander McQueen, which he wore for the summer festivals, the Earthling cover and later the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1997. He explained: "[It's] the ultimate anti-icon. A retelling of the British flag joke, again torn and stained... the tatty remains of a metaphysical empire." Pegg compares Bowie's Colossus of Rhodes-like stance in the cover to a "proud eighteenth-century landowner in a Gainsborough portrait" and, simultaneously, an alien-like visitor in an effect similar to the sleeve for Ziggy Stardust (1972). According to Gabrels, Bowie's intention for the cover was to realign himself with England.

Buckley writes that over the past thirty years in Britain, the Union Jack had gone from being symbols of confidence in the 1960s, oppression in the 1970s through the punk rock movement, and "rightist" through Morrissey's controversial use of it at Finsbury Park in the early 1990s. Pegg also notes that the 1990s Britpop era frequently saw the use of the Union Jack in advertisements, while numerous bands at the time posed with the flag for both Melody Maker and NME. Nevertheless, following Earthling's release, the Union Jack became fashionable, being worn by artists from Eurythmics to the Spice Girls.

The Earthling CD package was presented with an elaborate, electronically manipulated photo collage of Bowie and the band members. Additional images included with the sleeve dated back to Bowie's Los Angeles period in the mid-1970s, such as a blurred flying saucer and a Kirlian photograph of his fingertip and crucifix, which also appeared on the "Little Wonder" CD single. Pegg attributes Bowie's desire for the photographs to his then-cocaine addiction.

Release and promotion

When Bowie turned 50 on 8 January 1997, there was widespread media attention surrounding the date. Various specials, documentaries, biographies and tributes were released, while Bowie himself conducted interviews with several media outlets. To celebrate the event, he curated a concert in front of almost 15,000 fans at New York's Madison Square Garden on 9 January with a star-studded cast including Billy Corgan, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Black Francis, Robert Smith and Lou Reed, all of whom joined Bowie onstage to perform his songs. The setlist included all but two from the then-unreleased Earthling, along with tracks from Outside and numerous older hits. The event was recorded for a pay-per-view special directed by Tim Pope, who directed the video for "Time Will Crawl" (1987); additional footage was provided by Bowie's son Duncan Jones. The concert was positively received, although some found issue with the absence of Bowie's previous collaborators, such as Robert Fripp and Iggy Pop.

Earthling was preceded by the release of two singles. The first, "Telling Lies" backed by three remixes, was released on 4 November 1996. It peaked at number 76 and 79 in Britain and Scotland, respectively, although its distribution was limited to 3,500 copies. The second, "Little Wonder" backed by three remixes, was issued on 27 January 1997. The single was a success, peaking at number 14 in the UK and topping the chart in Japan. The accompanying music video was directed by Floria Sigismondi and depicts Bowie at three different ages. Buckley considers it a dance-oriented video rather than a rock one, reminiscent of Orbital's "The Box" (1996).

It's a lot more commercial than his recent albums and we believe that it has a great deal of longevity. Earthling is a very dynamic, bold statement and we aim to reflect that.

—RCA marketing director Kristina Kyriacou

Earthling was released on 3 February 1997 on CD and LP formats through RCA Records in the UK, Virgin Records in the US, and Arista Records and its parent distributor BMG elsewhere. The Japanese CD included the 'Adam F Mix' of "Telling Lies" as a bonus track. RCA stressed the album's accessibility in their marketing campaign. The album sold modestly, but performed better than its predecessor, reaching number six on the UK Albums Chart and number 39 on the US Billboard 200. It also reached number five in Belgian Wallonia and Sweden, and the top ten in France and Scotland. It was nominated for Best Alternative Music Performance at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards in 1998, losing to Radiohead's OK Computer (1997). Bowie promoted Earthling with a string of television appearances from February to April 1997, including on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show.

Following the album's release, three more singles followed suit. "Dead Man Walking" appeared in April 1997 on various single formats, some backed by remixes of the track and others featuring remixes of Outside tracks. One remix was done by musician Moby, which marked the beginning of Bowie's association with the artist. Its music video, again directed by Sigismondi, expanded on the themes of the "Little Wonder" video, featuring appearances from Bowie and Dorsey and, in Pegg's words, "flailing choreography". The band mimed the song on Top of the Pops on 25 April. The single was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, losing to Bob Dylan's "Cold Irons Bound" (1997). A Mandarin version of "Seven Years in Tibet", with lyrics translated by Lin Xi, topped the Hong Kong chart in June, around the time of the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong. It marked Bowie as the first non-Asian artist to reach number one in that territory. Bowie later stated: "I thought what a perfect time to release a single in Hong Kong, just as the Chinese take over. It got super-popular but I'm not sure we'll be able to tour there now of course." The Mandarin version backed the album version upon release in August, which failed to reach the UK top 50.

"I'm Afraid of Americans" was issued in the US only on 14 October 1997 as a maxi-single, where it was backed by six remixes, some of which featured Ice Cube and Photek. The project was instigated by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, continuing his and Bowie's association following the Outside Tour. Reznor, who stated that he "tried to make it a bit darker", stripped the production to its roots to create what Buckley calls "an eerie, psychotic track". Reznor also starred as the titular 'Johnny' in the Dom and Nic-directed music video, which reflected the song's theme of a frightened European in an American city and gave Bowie a nomination for Best Male Video at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. The single reached number 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained on the chart for 16 weeks, becoming Bowie's biggest hit in the country since "Day-In Day-Out" ten years earlier. It also stayed in the Canadian top 50 for six months.

Critical reception

Professional ratings
Contemporaneous reviews (in 1997)
Review scores
SourceRating
Chicago Tribune
Entertainment WeeklyA
The Guardian
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Robert Christgau(dud)
Rolling Stone
Select
Spin6/10

Earthling received largely positive reviews from music critics on release. Some considered it an improvement over its predecessor. Linda Laban of The Seattle Times found it a "richly textured return to excellence", while, in the words of Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot, it represented "some of [Bowie's] finest music in a decade". Mark Kemp of Rolling Stone considered the album Bowie's best since Scary Monsters, although he felt the music lacked innovation. A Q writer similarly found Earthling "shot through with a gnarly atmospheric chill not encountered since Scary Monsters". Multiple reviewers praised the musical experimentation. A writer for Billboard called Earthling Bowie's "most inspired, most cutting-edge, and most promising effort since Let's Dance [1983]". They predicted it would have great chart and Internet success and ultimately considered it "a work of infinite possibilities". Peter Aspden of the Financial Times positively compared Earthling to the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers' concurrent releases The Fat of the Land and Dig Your Own Hole, respectively, stating that they "were strong on aggression and aural attack, but lacked the variety and subtlety to last beyond twenty-odd interesting minutes".

Regarding the music, Andy Gill of The Independent praised it as innovative compared to other jungle and drum and bass acts of the time, stating: "What comes through most strongly on Earthling is the way Bowie retains an obsessional interest in the sheer variety and extremity of sound." He further highlighted Gabrels' and Garson's contributions on "Looking for Satellites" and "Battle for Britain", respectively. Furthermore, Gill commended Bowie for "offering refined mainstream applications of cutting-edge experimentation" in Mojo. Dan Deluca of The Philadelphia Inquirer similarly wrote that the record succeeded in blending the electronic beats and rhythms with live instrumentation. He ultimately considered it "nervy and energetic" and Bowie's finest album "in a diamond dog's age". Nevertheless, he felt that Bowie was "jumping on the electronica bandwagon".

Other reviewers expressed more mixed assessments. Writing for The Guardian, Caroline Sullivan concluded that the majority of the tracks lacked cohesiveness to elevate the album as one of Bowie's classics. In a more negative evaluation, Carol Clerk and Andre Paine, writers of Melody Maker, included Earthling on their list of Bowie albums "best to avoid". In a particularly scathing review, Select magazine's Ian Harrison gave the album one star out of five, writing: "Earthling is splendidly coiffured and presented...but the selling point – Bowie goes original junglist nutty – is so negligible as to be non-existent. And what remains is not good."

Tour

A middle-aged man with spiked hair and a red shirt singing next to a microphone
Bowie performing in Finland in June 1997

Rehearsals for the Earthling Tour began in mid-April 1997. The band was composed of Bowie, Gabrels, Dorsey, Alford and Garson. When asked by Q about his thoughts regarding touring, Bowie stated: "Honestly, it would be a sin not playing live when I've got a band like this. They're the best group I've had in twenty years, right up there with the Spiders in terms of cohesive musicianship and attitude." After performing two shows at the Hanover Grand in London in early June, the tour commenced on 7 June and concluded on 7 November 1997.

Pegg describes the shows as "less stagey" than the Outside Tour, although elaborate light shows, costume designs and visual aids were present. The setlist throughout the tour included more well-known hits than its predecessor, while all tracks from Earthling except "Law (Earthlings on Fire)" were performed. Initially, the tracks were split into conventional "rock" and "drum and bass" sets. Later on, they were interspersed throughout the setlists. British reviewers, such as Melody Maker and NME, praised the shows in general but were initially critical of the Earthling material, although the latter reversed its opinion by July. Chris Roberts of Uncut magazine praised Bowie's presence on stage, although he criticised the show's second half.

In July, the band appeared at the Phoenix Festival where they played as "Tao Jones Index" in the Radio 1 Dance tent. They later released remixed versions of "Pallas Athena" and the "Heroes" track "V-2 Schneider" (1977) as a single under the name in August. At the festival, Bowie approached electronic duo Orbital for a possible collaboration, although this never came to fruition; member Phil Hartnoll later considered it "the biggest disappointment of [his] career". The Phoenix Festival performance was later released as a live album in 2021 titled Look at the Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97), as part of the series Brilliant Live Adventures (2020–2021).

Changes were made to the setlist for the tour's American leg, which began in August. The band primarily played at small clubs rather than large venues for commercial reasons, according to Buckley. Performances during the leg were broadcast on various television stations throughout the rest of the year. Additionally, live performances from the entire year and other tracks were compiled for Earthling in the City (1997), a six-track promotional CD that was included with the November 1997 American issue of GQ magazine. While Bowie planned to release a live album from the tour, the idea was vetoed by Virgin. Tracks from the project were later released in 1999 to BowieNet subscribers as LiveAndWell.com, which was officially issued in 2021 as part of the Brilliant Live Adventures series.

Aftermath and legacy

Throughout 1997, Bowie garnered attention when he earned substantial wealth through the sale of "Bowie Bonds", a celebrity bond that was issued against Bowie's future royalties from his back catalogue over the next ten years. Bowie was the first rock musician to engage in such a deal, predating future endeavors by artists such as Elton John, and it earned him $55 million. He also earned an additional $28.5 million upon selling his back catalogue to EMI, who subsequently began a Best of... reissue campaign. In November 1997, Bowie performed on the BBC's Children in Need charity single "Perfect Day 97", which became a UK number-one single. In 1998, Bowie retreated from the spotlight, but nevertheless continued recording and making film appearances. He also reconciled with his former collaborator Tony Visconti. In late 1998, Bowie and Gabrels spent time in Bermuda, composing tracks for his next album Hours (1999).

In 2018, Gabrels considered Earthling his favourite collaboration with Bowie, telling Classic Rock magazine: "We did have a sense while we were doing it that we were making something we hadn't heard." Other artists have spoken positively of the record. Robert Smith later stated: "I really liked Earthling. I thought it was a really good album. The songs are great songs. They really stand up to be listened to AS songs and the fact that he worked in a particular genre and tried to capture a certain sound is neither here nor there. The songs are really well put together." Mark Guiliana cited Alford's drum work on Earthling as the primary inspiration for his drum patterns on Bowie's final album Blackstar (2016).

Retrospective appraisal

Professional ratings
Retrospective reviews (after 1997)
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic
Encyclopedia of Popular Music
NME6/10
Pitchfork8.0/10 (2000)
8.5/10 (2021)
The Rolling Stone Album Guide

Retrospective reviews of Earthling have been mixed. Reviewing in 2000, NME's John Mulvey found Earthling rushed compared to its predecessor. Although he welcomed it as another addition to Bowie's catalogue, he concluded: "It's not the future, but it's pretty fine." AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine criticised the album's sound as "awkward", writing that "the record frequently sounds as if the beats were simply grafted on top of pre-existing songs". He further called the songs formulaic and the album itself as ultimately underwhelming. John Davidson of PopMatters wrote that Earthling was the result of Bowie trying to "play catch-up" with the drum and bass explosion of the late 1980s. He called the lyrics Bowie's "most obtuse" and, like Erlewine, believed that the drum beats were built around the songs instead of for them. Davidson ultimately states: "Earthling is essentially a conventional Bowie rock album (if such a thing be), dressed in baggy dance garb." The Independent's Ed Power considered the album a part of the "most underrated phase" of Bowie's career and worth a reevaluation among fans. Jason Josephes of Pitchfork considered it an artistic rebirth for the artist and a "classic". Another writer of Pitchfork, Sean T. Collins positively compared Earthling to Young Americans (1975) and Let's Dance, calling the record a "muscular collection" that "deserves a place in the pantheon alongside its predecessors."

In lists ranking Bowie's studio albums from worst to best, Earthling has placed in the middle to low tier. Stereogum placed it at number 17 (out of 25 at the time) in 2013. Aaron Lariviere stated: "Earthling is nowhere near Bowie's best, but it's a treat to see the old dog show his teeth after all these years." Three years later, Bryan Wawzenek of Ultimate Classic Rock placed Earthling at number 18 out of 26, criticised its emphasis on "sounds over songs" and, like Davidson, found "Bowie being late to yet another sub-genre party". Nevertheless, he highlighted Bowie's energetic performance and the "great soundscapes" on "Seven Years in Tibet" and "I'm Afraid of Americans". The writers of Consequence of Sound ranked Earthling number 22 in their 2018 list.

Bowie's biographers have given Earthling mixed assessments. Pegg and Spitz argue that, despite being recorded in America and with American musicians, Earthling was Bowie's most "British" release in twenty years. While Buckley considers it a "hard-hitting and single-minded album", Christopher Sandford notes a lack of innovation but states that "it was a creditable enough bid for relevance by any fifty-year-old." He also calls "Little Wonder" Bowie's "most exciting and upbeat single since 'Blue Jean' [1984]". Meanwhile, Perone finds confusing themes throughout and opinions that the fusion of different musical styles are not always successful. O'Leary primarily criticises the production, particularly on "Little Wonder", as sounding dated within a couple of years. On the other hand, Trynka praises "Little Wonder" but criticises the album's repetitive nature. He concludes: "The album as a whole is conservative and formulaic. [...] Those faults would have been forgivable had the album been released two years earlier; its appearance just as the nineties drum and bass craze was subsiding suggested Bowie was content to surf on someone else's wave rather than make his own." Reviewing more positively, Pegg writes that its "furious broadside" makes Earthling a "very fine album". He calls it and its predecessor "essential purchases" of Bowie's "most underrated decade".

Reissues

In 2003, Columbia Records reissued Earthling on CD, with another reissue following a year later that contained bonus tracks, including 13 remixes, B-sides, alternate takes and live performances from the Earthling Tour. In 2021, the album was remastered and included as part of the box set Brilliant Adventure (1992–2001).

Track listing

All lyrics are written by David Bowie; all music is composed by Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati, except where noted.

Earthling track listing
No.TitleMusicLength
1."Little Wonder" 6:02
2."Looking for Satellites" 5:21
3."Battle for Britain (The Letter)" 4:48
4."Seven Years in Tibet"Bowie, Gabrels6:22
5."Dead Man Walking"Bowie, Gabrels6:50
6."Telling Lies"Bowie4:49
7."The Last Thing You Should Do" 4:57
8."I'm Afraid of Americans"Bowie, Brian Eno5:00
9."Law (Earthlings on Fire)"Bowie, Gabrels4:48
Total length:48:57

Personnel

According to the liner notes and biographer Nicholas Pegg.

Production

Charts

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