Since his shocking, untimely death in 2016, David Bowie’s life’s work has largely been reviewed, dissected, reappraised, reissued, and re-appreciated by his audience. This is mostly true of his acknowledged classic material and the artifacts (live and otherwise) taken from those periods.
His work in the 1990s? Not so much, though a brace of reissues of his output in the decade (from 1993’s Black Tie White Noise to 1999’s Hours) could and should change that. Lauded as an elder statesman by then-current heroes like Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor, Bowie strove to find a place among them as a contemporary, usually unsuccessfully. Albums like Outside and Earthling seemed constructed for this purpose, but, in spite of critical plaudits and kind words from famous fans, the records were not strong sales or chart performers.
That, however, just means we have more to discuss here, because the material and performances were really good – just not necessarily discussed as such. So let’s take a listen to five of the David Bowie songs from that era that no one talks about – the great man’s Great Underrated:
“Black Tie White Noise”: The title track of Bowie’s 1993 album is an amalgam of jazz, R&B and modern rock, bolstered by a guest vocal by (of all people) New Jack Swing singer Al B. Sure!
"Thursday's Child": Hours, released in 1999, might be the most underrated of Bowie’s 1990s albums, full of songs that would fit right into a discussion of his Great Underrated tracks. “Thursday’s Child” is an atmospheric ballad sung in the voice of a man who never reached the potential that others saw in him (“A whisper of hope that seemed to fail”).
"I'm Afraid of Americans": Venturing into deep paranoia is one thing. Setting that paranoia against a sheet of synth and guitar noise invites the listener to share that sense of dread, and perhaps rue the idea that “God is an American.” In this case, it’s probably not the most ringing of endorsements.
"The Heart’s Filthy Lesson": The nouveau-gothic industrial sounds of acts like Nine Inch Nails and Nitzer Ebb informed Bowie and Brian Eno’s reunion on the Outside LP in 1995. Though the album has a loose thread of a concept throughout, “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” works as a standalone single, giving the listener a fair introduction to the sound and subject matter of the work as a whole.
“Survive”: Sometimes we look back at “crossroads moments” and wonder what might have happened, had we turned right instead of left, or gone straight instead of turning. What kind of life might we have had? Then again, Bowie posits, is it possible we made the correct call after all? What happens when you run into “the great mistake I never made,” and realize you did the right thing?
BONUS: “One Shot” (with Tin Machine): Is it possible that David Bowie’s best ‘90s song was this Godzilla-stomper from Tin Machine’s second album (1991’s Tin Machine II)? Though the lyrics are nonsensical (“One day nothing meant nothing / Ten dollars tore us apart”), Reeves Gabrels’ guitar solos are detonations of fury and precision, Hunt Sales’ drum breakdown is a Bonham-like mini-masterpiece, and Bowie’s vocal is suitably dramatic. Tin Machine gets little love in most corners, but on “One Shot,” all the pieces fit perfectly.