David Bowie - Black Tie, White Noise
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
It might not be the most loathed Bowie solo album, that would probably be 87’s Never Let Me Down, but it’s definitely one of the most ignored. The casual Bowie historian will tell you it’s just a transitional album between the Tin Machine debacle and the semi solid creative footing of The Buddha of Suburbia. But this is Bowie slowly flexing his creative muscles after a five album run of crap; stirring from the between the sheets of wanting to be seen as a popular working artist and a relevant one. The magnificent album title conjured up images of sharp suits and feedback, a lean Afghan Whigs with an EVOL era Sonic Youth obsession, yet obviously never deliver on this imaginary non existent promise. Now I come to think of it, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead were supposed to be delivering that, and they didn’t bother either.
Black Tie White Noise was most certainly not a bid for commercial success from Bowie and Nile Rogers a la their Let’s Dance collaboration; Rogers is adamant he was offering Bowie much stronger arrangements and catchier hooks, but Bowie refused them wanting to stick to his own vision of the album. Bowie uses Rogers here as both a PR (the boys who brought you “Modern Love” are back!) adrenaline shot and a rhythmic foil (never his strong point), but the closest the pair get to the “Lets Dance” era sound is the vague resemblance found on the cover of “I Feel Free”. But the song doesn’t gel with the dancefloor at all as its just too glib, even the enjoyment found in Mick Ronson’s noisily unfastened playing and Bowie’s own dissonant saxophone can’t shake any more excitement out of the song. Despite this and one other minor setback (the schmaltzy Don’t let me Down and Down has the aura of the theme from Moonlighting), he’s pulled together a strong batch of songs and, as usual, brought the best from the players around him. He cajoles exceptional performances all over the album from Lester Bowie, whose idiosyncratically musical style fills the role normally played by Mike Garson. In fact they go marvellously head to head on “Looking for Lester” on which they ride back and forth over firm percussion.
The idea of this being any sort of wedding concept album lays only in the opening instrumental “The Wedding” and closer “The Wedding Song”; lulling you in and out of the album with same music. On first listen it’s just treated saxophone over a plain old housey piano line and bass, but as the layers build the duelling sax lines begin to resemble the Adhan call with Church of England wedding bells ringing underneath; a subtle mash-up of cultural heritages. Another spiritually themed but unrelated piece is “Pallas Athena” with its martial strings, tribal chants and single lyric ‘god is on top of it all, and that’s’ voiced by a creepily deep Bowie.
Centrepiece of the album is unavoidably “Jump They Say” which ricochets from a faulty drum intro into an all conquering single. A squashed backwards horn loop competes with his wailing saxophone on this thoroughly modern sounding, sweeping, energetic track. Signalling a return to lyrical cut ups it switches around between Biblical waffle, Poe imagery and conversational snatches, there is a malignant edge to his twin high/low vocal lines.
Bowie’s penchant for covers gets exercised, and the two here are well referenced in Bowie’s current and past influential appeal. Morrissey’s “I know it’s Gonna Happen Someday” is in essence Bowie covering Morrissey impersonating Bowie and is given the Gospel choir, full voiced Bowie treatment, and is far superior to the original. A great echoing piano sound is somewhat marred though by Wild T. Springer’s guitar solo which is a little too cocaine Clapton for my taste. Scott Walker’s “Nite Flights” is a rebranding of the original which was influenced by Bowie and Eno’s late Seventies work; quirky squeaks, spaceship engine drones and an energy of fake modernity with only the beats grounding the song, his Walkeresque harmonising with himself recalls his Tilt.
The Walker shadow looms again with the hum of the dark storm clouds on the introduction to “You’ve been Around”, its vocal stylings and self harmonies are very similar to those on Walker’s own Tilt and predate it by two years; the cycle continues. The brisk synthetic upright bassline is typical Rogers, a signature sound as part of his strict well marshalled funk. There’s even a nod to the past with the line ‘You’ve changed me….ch ch ch ch ch changed’.
Its the most commercial tracks on Black Tie White Noise that take the most crap, the poppy “Miracle Goodnight” (driven by a call and response trumpet and chorus of Davids’ that’s surprisingly cheery) and of course the title track. There is always much hilarity at even the mere mention of Al B Sure!’s name and his duet on the title track (scurrilously slagged as a post LA Riot “Ebony and Ivory”) is late night modern soul with a great mono wah-wah intro and the other Bowie’s outstanding trumpet. It can be, and will be, viewed as the vaguely cheesy ramblings of a middle aged man, but its becoming a rarity to hear someone touch upon that subject without being aggressive or dismissive.
This would’ve been a far more esoteric, enjoyable and universally accepted collection if Rodgers hadn’t been involved at all, leaving Bowie to fully realise the darker edges. Black Tie White Noise is much more than a step in the right direction and deserves your re-acquaintance.
By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2004-03-23