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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

3WA 2018 #6: David Bowie – Black Tie White Noise

While I’m indulging my underdog-cheering side, let’s take a look at an underappreciated album by one of pop music’s late greats.

What is it?

Black Tie White Noise is David Bowie’s 1993 record and his first step on the return journey toward a steady solo recording career after the Tin Machine project wound down. Technically it’s twelve songs long but most available renditions come with two or more bonus tracks.

How does it sound?

Loading in the sampler, cranking up the mix track:

Why this pick?

Anyone who’s heard me talk about my affection for the Tin Machine records might be surprised I didn’t go for one of them instead, particularly that loud and angry first release. I thought about it, yes indeed!

I picked BTWN instead because it does have some very good songs on it, and because it’s an interesting snapshot of an artist in the throes of figuring out what to do after hitting the big time, recoiling from it, and deciding he wants something else from his career, just not that.

Which songs are the highlights?

The released single, “Jump They Say,” definitely qualifies. It’s a strong pop song but not quite like the “Let’s Dance” type of piece from the ’80s. Following it on the album are a nice cover song (“Nite Flights”) and the odd but compelling “Pallas Athena.”

Turns out, “You’ve Been Around” is what’s left of a holdover from the Tin Machine sessions. No wonder I dig it. “Looking For Lester” seems like a song that might’ve had lyrics if Bowie had gotten around to it. It’s just as well he didn’t, as it makes for a groovy little instrumental piece. Oddly enough, while the lead-off track “The Wedding” didn’t work for me, the almost identical backing track works better with lyrics when it becomes “The Wedding Song” to close out the album proper.

If you get a version of the album which includes it, “Lucy Can’t Dance” is a great little number.

Which songs don’t work so well?

“The Wedding” is five minutes of lyrics-free saxophone-led noodling. The man had just gotten married, I guess he’s allowed this indulgence. Also along the newlywed-bliss thread we get “Miracle Goodnight,” which isn’t bad really, it’s just… there.

His cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” feels the most like something from the Let’s Dance days, and unfortunately that isn’t in its favor. “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” is the most ’90s-sounding song on the album, and not in a good way. Knowing that “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” is a Morrissey song explains so, so much about why I can’t stand it.

The song which works the most poorly out of the whole project, though, is the one with its name on the cover. At first listen “Black Tie White Noise” sounds nicely, if naively, optimistic about the state and future of race relations in Western culture. The closer attention you pay to the lyrics, however, especially from the perspective of the late twenty-teens? The more cringe-inducing it really becomes. It’s very… rich-white-guy trying to make nice. One feels uncomfortable criticizing the song too much because hey, he’d just married the supermodel Iman, but… hmm. Let’s call it “problematic” and leave it at that, I suppose.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

As noted above, I nearly went with the first Tin Machine album. I love that angry mess of rock-n-roll, I truly do.

Were I to stick with strictly Bowie, though, I’d probably go for Ziggy Stardust. Let’s be honest, though: That’s too obvious a choice. But I don’t have a lot of other options. He may have made better albums from here on out. They may have featured better individual songs here and there. I just never connected with any of the later albums as a whole. I’m a product of the 1980s, musically speaking, and for some reason where Bowie went from here I wasn’t quite able to follow.

I admire the hell out of the guy, I’m just not the best fan to represent his work. Here I am anyway, pushing for a listen to an album that most fans seem to dismiss. I’m just that kind of weirdo.

Any final thoughts?

OK, let’s be honest: This is a stupendously uneven record. Less than half the songs are four-star or better. Some of them are completely off-putting to me. The title track is simultaneously a nice, groovy tune and a hot mess of lyrical concepts & conceits.

Still, there’s enough music on this album I really like that I don’t feel like I’m cheating to recommend you give it a listen. The songs I love here are very, very good. The songs I don’t love here at least include some interesting failures.

1 Comment

  1. I’m not (wasn’t? How do you refer to that concept when the artist is dead?) a big Bowie fan. Oh, I knew his hits, sure, and “Heroes” is on the short list of my favorite songs, and I’ll fight you every day of the week on the value of Let’s Dance, but this album is not one I have any familiarity with at all. Like, none. I knew it existed, and the cover is one of the best photographs of him that I’ve ever seen, but the music? Nada. So no rating from me this time around.

    I’d give Tin Machine an enthusiastic thumbs up, though. That cover of “Working Class Hero” is just… wow. I was right on the edge of my Industrial phase, so the album hit me at the perfect time. So, yeah, and stuff.

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