Greetings, Glancers! Welcome back once more to the journey that just won’t die. Black Tie White Noise was done at the same time or after his side-gig with Tin Machine. I liked those two albums as much as, if not more than most of Bowie’s solo stuff, but this is him back on track with his own bad self. I know nothing about the album other than Wiki telling me it was a return to form after his 80s exploits – I saw that snippet as I checked out the tracklist. Well, lets get on with it.
‘The Wedding‘ begins, quite expectedly, with Church bells – one of the most hellish sounds known to man. We then get a gorgeous orchestral swell and some sort of percussive beats. It builds and finally becomes coherent thanks to a near Happy Mondays stomp. It’s all very neat but then it’s nearly ruined by screeching brass – possibly the most hellish sound known to man. I’m guessing at this point this is an instrumental. I don’t mind when they open albums so much. I would like this if it wasn’t for the brass, but it’s a sound I’ll never enjoy. Without that, it’s fine, but a good two minutes too long.
‘You’ve Been Around‘ comes in hard with the fat synth. Then a terribly dated drum sound drops. It’s not quite New Jack, it’s not quite Madchester, but it’s somewhere in between – which must roughly be the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Good melodies and vocals in the verse, but man those drums are terrible. Repeating jangled guitars, backing choirs, more trumpets – all Bowie standards. It’s fine but overlong once more. Cut out the trumpet, change the drums = better.
‘I Feel Free‘ explodes briefly before dropping into vocal tics and then into a funky verse with too low in the mix vocals. It’s fairly plain as far as Bowie goes, but at least no sign of brass yet. The jangled guitars and choirs are present and accounted for. Yet again, needlessly long.
‘Black Tie White Noise‘ doesn’t start out well – it has a dreadful 80s tone and more brass. It smooths somewhat but the sound is still very dated and the vocals are disjointed – not in a pleasing way. There’s another voice here, a guest singer of some sort. It’s another McCartney/Jackson type of thing. I get the sentiment behind the song, but it’s buried under so much crap it’s a wonder it was ever released. I’m not sure what sort of sound he was going for here, some sort of merging of genres but none of it works and the boing boing boing of noi-oi-oise is like discovering a spider under your eyelid.
‘Jump They Say‘ jumps from awful 80s sound into almost as awful 90s sound. It’s dated, but not as pronounced. It gets better in the verses and you can see it working as a club hit regardless of the production. Of course there’s more sabotage in the chorus with silly sax and trumpets. We even get a torturous sax solo. Still, it’s probably the best song on the album till now.
‘Nite Flights‘ continues the not quite Ministry Of Sound, not quite New Jack vibe. The production largely avoids causing me to wish the song was over. Some interesting sounds, better melodies, but it’s still not the sort of thing to make my playlist long term. This one overtakes the previous track as the best on the album.
‘Pallas Athena‘ begins much more promisingly, ominous throbbing and a repeated spoken refrain, along with some creepy, cool strings. The beat then drops – it had all been building like a dance track so it was obvious this was coming. It’s a little unfortunate that it doesn’t build upon this opening and instead takes the instrumental approach and throws more piercing sax at us. There’s the makings of a great song in here, it just didn’t go the direction I wanted it to for me to feel it’s anything more than ‘okay’. At least Bowie is continuing to move with the times and try new sounds.
‘Miracle Goodnight‘ is some funky new age jazz dance which makes me think of chickens. For no reason – those noise are just making me think of chickens. The backing music is too repetitive without adding enough variance, that upwards quartet of notes over and over becoming particularly grating after a minute. I do like the vocals and general melodic quality of the song – but as with almost every other song ever written – there’s no need for the spoken part.
‘Don’t Let Me Down And Down‘ comes straight in with an 80s vibe – not quite a power ballad but I imagine it’s the closest Bowie ever got to such things. It’s slow, dreamy, the instrumental choices are unusual for Bowie, the drums feel a little too booming consider the soothing nature of everything else. If you guessed there would be a horn solo you’d be right, but this one is more compelling, less screechy than others on the album. Towards the end, Bowie belts out a section of vocals nicely which heightens the obvious pleading quality of the lyrics. Definitely one of my favourites on the album.
‘Looking For Lester‘ is more 90s poppy jazz stuff – it has that cheap, cheery 90s beat which was up and down the charts at the time, usually accompanied by backing dancers in baggy clothing kicking their legs around. Is this completely instrumental? This sort of track does nothing for me. Interestingly the horns are only marginally annoying, but all the parts add up to a whole lot of nothing.
‘I Know It’s Going To Happen Someday‘ is a Morrissey cover, which sounds a little odd on the surface, but makes sense the more I think about it. It has an old-timey Gospel feel but I don’t like the echo on the vocals. It wasn’t my favourite song to begin with and this doesn’t do much to change my opinion – there is nothing wrong, I like the backing vocals and the guitar solo, but it’s never going to have an impact on me.
‘The Wedding Song‘ closes the album, bookending alongside the opener. It starts with some dirty bass before the 90s dance sounds and beats come in. Those really date it but I get the feeling that an updated version would clean up some of the irritants and dating attributes. Get rid of the screechy horns too. I like the vocals and the effects on them this time, and the melody is quite sweet.
Another Bowie album with more misses than hits for me. It’s a very obvious new direction for him to take, especially after his 80s stuff and Tin Machine work, and he does sound quite invigorated by it. Most of the sounds and tones he goes for he does so successfully, but those same sounds and tones are not of the type I generally enjoy and they remind me of a lot of early 90s throwaway pop which I didn’t like at the time. The consistent brass, which I know he’s never going to get away from, also is like wasps to my ears so I’m already starting on the wrong foot when it comes to hearing this record. It’s not one I feel any desire to listen to again, and only a couple of the songs were interesting enough to me to want to revisit.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Black Tie White Noise!
Nightman’s Playlist Picks: Nite Flights. Pallas Athena.