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While it shouldn’t raise eyebrows that the Man Who Fell to Earth has appropriated the riddims of drum ‘n’ bass for Earthling, the quality of the Thin White Duke’s theft should at least leave one brow arched in appreciation. Bowie’s musical lifts throughout the ’70s were always mixed with surprising sonics, striking theatrics, and, as the sobriquets above show, various personas. But Earthling presents the late-’90s, 50-year-old Bowie as the sprightly David Jones, more music lover than innovator. Jungle’s structural insistence on dissonance over coherence hasn’t willingly lent itself to traditional tunesmithery, but Bowie has written sections into his compositions that play upon Reeves Gabrels’ brutal guitar riffs rather than the drum patterns, giving the songs a second to seep into your ears before the syncopated beats burst in anew (much as they do in Trent Reznor’s arena jungle anthem, “The Perfect Drug”). With Gabrels showcasing squealing string techniques that should please readers of Guitar Player as well as post-rock poindexters, Bowie is left to concentrate on making his vocals fit Earthling’s hyperventilating percussion patterns. As he proves on the “Little Wonder” single, Bowie is smart enough to sing around the beats rather than compete with them, in effect echoing the clipped but booming bass lines that ground jungle’s drums. Bowie’s voice is at the strongest it’s been in 15 years, not quite achieving the mixture of English whimsy and rocking soul crooning of old, but rarely reverting to the ’80s-style mannered monotone he employed to plow through so many dull songs. Throughout Earthling, Bowie proves that while he may no longer be the Man Who Sold the World, he’s content to enjoy the parts he can borrow.

—Christopher Porter