The Concept Album is a frightening beast that allows an artist to live out his most self-indulgent tendencies; if the pop-musician writes short and self-contained songs that are meant to tell a story, the creator of the Concept Album considers himself a bona fide artist who resides above the form. Such thinking, of course, ruined the likes of Pete Townshend: Tommy was a bloated attempt to dignify rock, Psychoderelict and The Iron Man were laughably pretentious attempts to glorify the mediocre, and the only reason Quadrophenia worked was because it was a collection of good individual songs.
David Bowie, of course, has embraced the Concept Album, and the characters contained within, as long as he's been around - Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Diamond Dog, the Thin White Duke, and so on with wildly mixed results. He's clearly a man more comfortable writing in his own skin but singing his lyrics through another's mouth; when he closed the book five years ago on his old hits, swearing never to perform them again after the "Sound + Vision Tour," Bowie did so hoping to stave off the encroaching irrelevance that creeps up on all musicians one day. He didn't want to be looked upon as an oldies act, convinced he still had stories to tell and characters to create.
So meet his new one, or ones: Detective Nathan Adler, an "art detective" investigating a series of brutal and bizarre murders, and a host of other shady characters that populate Bowie's latest album Outside. It's a Concept Album in its grandest form, one for which Bowie has created that most popular of settings - the post-apocalyptic wasteland, a dark and dank future cluttered with half-human "ROMbloids" and other assorted disfigured and diseased sorts running amok in Oxford Town, New Jersey. The plot, such as it is, makes little sense in the songs themselves; when revealed in conjunction wtih Bowie's accompanying over-wrought and hard-boiled "narrative," "The Diary of Nathan Adler, or the Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue," it becomes even more ridiculous - which is perhaps the point, but life is too short to make such distinctions.
Which leaves the music: Outside marks the fourth collaboration between Bowie and producer Brian Eno, who last stepped into the studio together to record 1979's Lodger, and as Bowie sings on "The Motel" here, "There is no hell like an old hell." The two men pick up where they left off during their Low-"Heroes" - Lodger heyday, creating snippets of sound that coalesce like mercury to form complete moods instead of complete songs; Outside isn't a record of hit singles - there's no "Let's Dance" -but one of uncomfortable noise and fragments that don't mean much till you reach the album's end and realize they have created as much atmosphere,as much character, as any short story. Just so long as you don't pay attention to the words.
David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, with special guest Prick, perform October 13 at the Starplex Amphitheatre.