This album is less than the sum of its parts. I often hear one of its songs, some of which frequently appear on my iPod playlists, and am reminded that the album is pretty good. Though I rarely listen to the whole thing straight through. Perhaps more than any other Bowie album, Black Tie White Noise is marked by radically shifting highs and lows. It takes a while to ramp up, and though it does establish a kind of feel, it really doesn’t have a unifying theme.
The album starts with one of its two instrumentals. The first, “The Wedding Song,” is interesting in that Bowie wrote it for his wedding to Iman. A vocal version closes out the album. Neither is especially memorable except for their origin stories, and in that the first version is missing two elements I like in Bowie songs— his voice and his lyrics, Its an inauspicious way to start.
The instrumental is followed by two good songs, “You’ve Been Around” and “I Feel Free.” Both songs continue a Bowie tradition of including tricks to make them more accessible. Much as “Young Americans” includes the unexpected line, “I heard the news today, oh boy!,” and “Suffragette City” includes, without warning, “Wham, Bam, Thank You ‘Mam,” “You’ve Been Around” includes a secret surprise. In this case, after the word “change” appears, Bowie hurls out, “ch-ch-ch-change,” as if to remind everyone who it is that’s singing the song.
“I Feel Free” is immediately accessible because its a cover of a familiar song. Bowie was never afraid of covering other peoples’ songs, however in my mind his covers fall into two categories: very familiar songs, like this, and more obscure songs that he made his own. Usually, the latter variety turn out better. It is tough for me to hear songs like, “I Feel Free,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” or “Across the Universe” and not think of the originals. On the other hand, these familiar songs helped me ease into the albums, and this version (featuring Mick Ronson on guitar) is certainly worthy.
But then the album hits its low point— the title track. Most Bowie songs don’t contain political or moral messages— many aren’t even about anything in the conventional sense. When he would try to make a point, he was at his best when he was somewhat ambiguous or at least oblique. “China Girl” is, I think, about imperialism and racialism…but I’m not really sure. It might be about heroin. Or a Chinese girl. Anyway, it leaves something to the imagination. Not so with the song, “Black Tie White Noise.” It is the musical version of, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Plus, it features a second singer named Al B. Sure! (the exclamation point is part of his name), who I have thankfully never heard from since. Slow, moralistic, simplistic — this is, to me, Bowie at his worst. Worse still, the placement of the song kills the album’s pace, which fortunately recovers with the next song, “Jump They Say.”
“Jump They Say” and “Miracle Goodnight” are my two favorite songs on the album. I have the feeling that had these songs, or perhaps the entire album been released following “Let’s Dance,” rather than nearly a decade later, they would have been much bigger hits. Since Bowie’s death, most tributes I’ve encountered downplay his post-1980s legacy, which to me is a shame. Seldom do I encounter a Bowie song on the radio that’s less than 30 years old. I don’t think that has anything to do with the pop-merits of these songs in particular. Rather, Bowie crossed over a kind of threshold with the critically unsuccessful albums, “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down,” followed by the radically different, non-pop Tin Machine period. By the time of this album, Bowie’s reputation, if not his actual artistic abilities, had jumped (they say) the shark.
This theory was more or less tested with the mysterious release of another of the album’s better songs, “Pallas Athena.” This song is not an instrumental but Bowie’s voice was so distorted as to be unrecognizable. So the song was released and became a dance-club hit— without it being identified as a Bowie song. Apparently, Bowie’s name had become a negative by 1993. But the song was good.
Nestled in the middle of the album is another good song, “Nite Flights,” but it ends with a bit of a whimper. “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” continues Bowie’s series of cursed “Let Me Down” songs. Then there’s another instrumental, followed by another low-point, a cover of Morrissey’s “I Know Its Gonna Happen Someday.” I never particularly liked this song (and I’m not a fan of Morrissey), but it was years before I realized that Bowie’s version is a parody. He’s actually making fun of Morrissey with his version of this song. That’s a little more evident in the video, during which Bowie holds up a lighter as if he was a member of the audience at the point in a concert where everyone does this. Parody or not, the song is slow and Bowie’s vocals sounds like he’s exaggerating for comedic effect. This doesn’t make fo good listening.
To finish it off, the album ends with the vocal version of, “The Wedding Song.” It isn’t a bad song, but it isn’t especially memorable. It is, however a more intensely personal song than most for Bowie. It is really about his wedding. Unlike (the much better) “Be My Wife,” this is a love song (Bowie has few of those). He pledges, “”I’m gonna be so good, just like a good boy should; I’m gonna change my ways.” This seems like a direct refutation of what has seemed to me to be the description of some sort of moral failing (possibly adultery), in my favorite song, “Beauty and the Beast”: “I wanted to be good; I wanted no distractions; like every good boy should.”
But if “The Wedding Song” was a pledge to Iman, it appears from the outside to be a promise Bowie kept for the rest of his life. From this point forward, Bowie seemed happier than he had in the past, even when dressing up as a demon during the “Earthling” period or a bloody killer during the “Outside” phase. (His picture on the cover of “Black Tie White Noise” is the only picture of him smiling on an album cover). The marriage seemed to have stayed strong, and as Iman continues to celebrate Bowie on social media and elsewhere, she seems to think of him as having been a good husband.