It was a charming conceit: David Bowie, demigod, hanging with Soupy Sales’s kids in Tin Machine, the not-so-young dude masquerading as one of the boys. But even as Ziggy Stardust with the Spiders From Mars, Bowie has never been any mere band mate, and Tin Machine’s rear-guard guitar rock, about a fifth as sharp as Bowie’s own retro bagatelle Pinups, seemed never enough to compel his (or our) full interest.
Black Tie White Noise brings the Thin White Duke back with one of the smartest records of a very smart career. It’s also Bowie’s blackest sound yet. In the wake of the L.A. riots, amid the triumph of rap and African American film, turning soulward is savvy, and Bowie has always been secure enough to expand his inner vision when the world shifts. His marriage to Iman — supermodel but, even so, a Somali — may also have provided non-Western inspiration. Yet what’s remarkable about this new record is how deeply Bowie mines the black mother lode while never conceding his own personality; with no wanna-be sentimentality, he confronts and incorporates the music that remains pop’s edgiest source.
Notably on Young Americans and Station to Station, Bowie has worked this vein before. But for all their wit, his explorations of R&B and disco (the latter, with its reliance on European producers, hardly the purest black form anyway) hadn’t the confidence that stamps Black Tie. Technophile in their impetus, house music and New Jack Swing are especially congenial for Bowie: Coproducing with Nile Rodgers, the modern soul wizard who, with Let’s Dance, gave him his last smash, Bowie fuses these urban styles to the kind of fierce funk jazz Miles Davis premièred on Bitches Brew. Art Ensemble of Chicago founder Lester Bowie soars on trumpet above an eleven-man corps of players highlighted by Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels, and Bowie dusts off his sax to wail on arrangements by Count Basie-Dizzy Gillespie alumnus Chico O’Farrill — and the result is jagged, dense and riveting.
Its carillon echoing the bells that introduced John Lennon’s solo debut, “The Wedding” kicks things off with an air of pronouncement: The instrumental places emphasis properly on the new tone Bowie is taking. Seeking a sphere in which “flesh meets the spirit world/Where the traffic is thin,” on “You’ve Been Around,” the singer, longing for “the sound of tomorrow,” stutters “ch-ch-changes,” the war cry for his early experimentation, and then backs off for a Lester Bowie solo. Thematically, the stage is set. The title track, a duet with Al B. Sure!, finds Bowie heralding the cool birth of a new fusion. “Getting my facts from a Benetton ad/Looking through African eyes,” he sings on the title track, and while the voice is hip, the hope it expresses is urgent and realistically wary. We “walk through the night thinking ‘We are the world,'” Bowie wryly comments, but in a time of “fascist cries/Both black and white” evolution won’t come easy — “there will be some blood/No doubt about it.” Quoting Marvin Gaye (“What’s going on?”), Bowie is vigilant, prophesying from a security that’s at best provisional (“just an hour or so to be safe from fear”).
Mourning the suicide of the stepbrother who inspired “Aladdin Sane,” “Jump They Say” finds Bowie offering cautionary advice (“I say he should watch his ass/Don’t listen to the crowd/They say: ‘Jump'”), the song’s insistent “Golden Years”-like groove toughening its sad content. Dread also drives “Night Flights,” with its images of “dawn dug up by dogs” and “stitches, torn and broke.” “Pallas Athena,” too, offers scant reassurance — above a mix of classical chord changes and roiling funk, Bowie bellows repeatedly, “God is on top of it all,” and it’s hard to tell whether he’s praying or cursing.
If Black Tie‘s first half is Bowie scoping out a state of siege for clues and possibilities, its second part sees him examining the redemptive power of romance. “Miracle Goodnight” is nearly jaunty, and it gives us Bowie, generally so aloof, learning a new kind of language. “Skin tell me/Head tell me…. Breath tell me/Heart tell me,” he croons as a lover who, for once, hasn’t “got a death wish” and who cries, “I long for evermore.” “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” is all lush-soul entreaty, and with the vast, choral sweep of “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” the singer gushes (“Don’t lose faith!”) — and gives an avuncular nod to Morrissey, the song’s author and the sort of desperate romantic Bowie first portrayed long ago. “The Wedding Song,” a vocal rendering of the album’s opener, brings things full circle, and while it flirts with irony (“I’m gonna be so good/Just like a good boy should”), its passionate testifying to the transforming capability of love (“Don’t I feel like a saint alive?”) makes Bowie’s happy wail of “I believe in magic!” seem almost believable — or at least a very possible dream.
Coming of artistic age at the end of the Sixties, a time when change and experiment were de rigueur for superstars, Bowie has been unique among his contemporaries in keeping alive that perilous tradition. Resolutely up to the minute, Black Tie White Noise both honors his own restless history and points the way to future risk, to brave changes yet to come.