When you think of David Bowie, what’s the first album that comes to mind?
Is it “Hunky Dory”?
Or, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”?
Maybe it’s “Heroes”.
It’s unlikely to be “Outside” (1. Outside and subtitled The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle).
Bowie’s 20th studio album was released in September 1995. It may have been a comeback from his decline in the 80s with the flop of “Tonight”, but it is rarely mentioned when discussing the icon’s best work.
There is a lot to unpack with this concept album, from method to madness to murder—starting with the writing process. Bowie is known for his cut-up method, which involved (literally) cutting up books, articles and his diaries and rearranging them to create new meanings. The artist used this technique to “ignite anything that might be in my imagination”.
During the writing stage of this album, Bowie took this to a whole other level and worked on a digitalised version of this method with Ty Roberts using a Mac laptop. This software operated by inserting words, which would be arranged into columns. Inputs could be filtered by word groups e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. The user decided how many words were in each column, and with a quick push of a button randomly created sentences or lyrics would appear.
Whilst it is unknown what words Bowie used for Outside, he did produce a list he used for “The Next Day” released in 2013. This collection included “vampyric”, “chthonic” (what a word), “succubus” and many more unusual expressions, see the full list here.
Let’s move on to the lyrical content…
Outside tells a fragmented tale of detective Nathan Adler with his assistant Paddy investigating the ‘art-murder’ of a 14-year-old girl called Baby Grace Blue in Oxford Town, a fictional town in New Jersey. The crime-solving duo tries to hunt down the artist and murderer ‘The Minotaur’, with the suspects being Leon Blank, Ramona A Stone and Algeria Touchshriek.
Each song takes on a different perspective with spoken word tracks between them. The album is non-linear and extremely open to the interpretation of the listener. Essentially, the story is left on a cliffhanger as Bowie intended to release sequels, but this never happened.
Another interesting aspect of Outside to consider is what inspired Bowie to create such a morbid album.
One thing to think about is the type of media released in the 1990s. Bowie was heavily inspired by David Lynch’s TV series ‘Twin Peaks’, which shows through the fractured narrative of Outside.
Murder and violence were in fashion. Artists took advantage of this and seduced their audience with stylish slasher and glamorous gore. Just look at Se7en, Pulp Fiction, Primal Fear, etc. Not to mention the real-life cases the media obsessed over, like the Menendez murders, the O.J. Simpson case and the assassination of Gianni Versace.
Bowie was no exception to the phenomenon with his reported obsession with serial killers such as Ian Brady and Ted Bundy.
Intending to explore boundaries, Bowie took it even further. Originally, an artist named Damien Hirst and the singer had planned to create their own minotaur. A mythical creature that Bowie was obsessed with and a character and motif in Outside and his visual art. The pair had planned to attach a bull’s head to a dead man (donated) and bring it to a Greek island. This did not go ahead…
One of Bowie’s main inspirations was his trip to the Gugging mental institution in Vienna. Patients were people who showed artistic promise and were allowed to create art dubbed as ‘outsider art’. Bowie spent a few days here, looking at art, speaking to the patients and introspecting on the idea of being an outsider.
The morbid nature of Outside so perfectly reflected the atmosphere of the ‘90s. As a result, some of the tracks were used in some of the era’s most prolific films. Most memorably in Se7en.
Many people believe that Se7en inspired Outside or Outside inspired Se7en, but both were created at the same time. Both are so reflective of each other that “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” was used for the end credits of David Fincher’s 1995 psychological thriller.
This genre-bending album is a wild ride. It’s a Bowie album I rarely visit, but after reading a Vice article when researching music and AI for my editorial piece “The Future of AI in the Music Industry”, I dipped back in and found myself appreciating it more. Since I have gone through a rabbit hole of information, and become slightly obsessed. Outside has many layers to peel back, with just a few of those covered in this post…