Black Tie White Noise

What a comeback! Even having listened to Tin Machine, it finally feels like we’re back to David Bowie. I don’t think it’s far off to call this a big comeback album, because he needed some direction following Never Let Me Down, and this is the culmination of his effort to find his way again. This is almost as drastic a change as Young Americans was after Diamond Dogs. Here, he ditched the ’80s pomp and hard rock, turning toward electronic and house music, and it sounds really cool. When you divide his album periods up, I think this is the clear beginning of “old Bowie”, because a lot of his techniques are on this album. I said that Tin Machine would be influential on his later work, but it was still him caught in a kind of limbo. On Black Tie White Noi-oi-oise though, he’s found the groove that will power him through the next two decades. And plus, this was the start of a new time in his life, having just married Iman Abdulmajid who he was with for the rest of his life. This life event was a creative inspiration, and you can hear that on the album. In fact, two of the songs are ones he wrote for his wedding! I’d love to hear the demos of them.

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The biggest thing that you hear when you listen to the album are the dance beats. They’re so in your face, and I don’t think comparing this album to Young Americans is all that wrong when both albums appropriated so fully one style. It’s full-on on this album, and to be honest I really enjoy it. It’s really engaging and energetic, more than both Tin Machine albums were and way more than Tonight and Never Let Me Down. It gives the album an invigorating feel, like Bowie’s emerging from the fountain of youth, and in a way he was. I’m not all that familiar with house music, so I can’t say if this is derivative or if the beats aren’t well done, but for these shallow ears its cool. It’s a whole new unexplored element, so even a typical song structure feels changed – and these songs are really good! The obvious standout is Jump They Say, a track about his brother’s death that’s frustrated and stone cold, and for good reason. His brother’s shadow lingers on the album because, despite having committed suicide in 1985, he and Bowie had a really important relationship, having mentored Bowie in a lot of ways. I Feel Free, an actually pretty decent cover considering Bowie’s track record for the past few albums, was also related to his brother via a really strong memory they had made together with the song. I like how impassionately Bowie sings. It reminds me of the way he was singing back during Low when he was emotionless. I really like the propulsion of the song and the wild twisting turns it takes with the trumpet.

That’s not the only callback on this album though. Nite Flights is a cover (of which there are like three on this album, including the aforementioned I Feel Free) of Scott Walker. The book on Low I read talked a lot about Bowie’s influences and idols, and Scott Walker was one of those. I’m actually not all that familiar with Scott Walker, but I want to listen to more from him, since this isn’t the first or last time Bowie and Walker were mentioned in the same sentence.

Speaking of callbacks, there’s also a little ch-ch-ch-changes shoutout in You’ve Been Around that’s really cute!

I also really enjoy the instrumental songs on the album. Two of them were the wedding songs, the second of which (Pallas Athena) sounds so ominous, with strings acting out that portentous music heard in lots of movie trailers like Lord of the Rings. There’s also a bizarre but super enjoyable vocal sample shouting GOD… IS ON TOP OF IT. How this was wedding material beats me, but it’s super enjoyable in any case. But the opener and closer (another callback, this time to Scary Monsters?) have a great sense of rhythm and funk. I adore the wild saxophone (sounds like Secret Life of Arabia or an instrumental on “Heroes” or something??) and the general feel of it.

Speaking of funky! Carlos Alomar… has left, but Nile Rodgers is back! I loved Alomar’s guitar work with Bowie, but he was impossible to find on Bowie’s ’80s albums, so when I first heard the funky guitar on You’ve Been Around, I immediately went searching for his name in the personnel. He’s not on here, but I’m glad to hear that the funk has returned to Bowie after being absent for so long There are tons of guests on this album. Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine plays (and co-wrote) You’ve Been Around, and there’s a funny anecdote where Bowie said he was so happy to do that song on his album, because he could call all the shots, so he mixed Reeves Gabrels’ guitar way to the back and it made him so mad, lirl. Mike Garson plays piano on a song, and he would come back to play again on Outside, so it’s cool to hear him and Bowie back together. Then there’s also one huge cameo in Mick Ronson playing on I Feel Free! I can’t tell so much that it’s him, to be honest, and it’s really sad, because he and Bowie had been estranged for so long, and he died of cancer (  ) the same year.

I have one absolute favorite from the album, and it’s Miracle Goodnight. It has such a cool hook, Bowie singing like he’s constipated (I like it tho), lyrics full of self-doubt, and an absolutely incredible guitar solo. I want to listen to that guitar solo for 10 minutes straight, it’s so nice.

Black Tie White Noise was an important album. I think that it’s more of a stepping stone to better albums, but it’s really solid on its own. Like with Tin Machine, its influence will continue to be felt.

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2 thoughts on “Black Tie White Noise

  1. … but you didn’t mention ‘Looking for Lester’ – the horizon-widening-stepping-downhill track – and what about Lester Bowie’s breaks, especially in ‘Jump’

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