Black Tie White Noise is the eighteenth studio album by David Bowie, released in 1993 through Savage Records in conjunction with Arista Records in most of the world. His first solo album since Never Let Me Down in 1987, it once again represented the start of a new phase in his career.
Prior to the release of this album, he met, and later married, the model Iman Abdulmajid. As a result, numerous songs on the album revolve around the pair's newlywed bliss at the time, interspersing these love songs with ones featuring more socially conscious and introspective material influenced by both his growing age (being 46 at the time of the album's release) and the Los Angeles Riots.
The album marked a number of reunions between Bowie and collaborators who he hadn't worked with in years. Nile Rodgers, who helped produce Let's Dance, helps produce this album as well; meanwhile, Bowie's 1970-1973 guitarist Mick Ronson (who would later pass away from liver cancer that same year) and his 1973-1975 pianist Mike Garson (who'd reappear on most of Bowie's later albums) make guest appearances on one song each. Despite featuring the same producer as Let's Dance and a similarly slick, pop-friendly sound (not to mention coming out just in time for the tenth anniversary of Let's Dance), Bowie denied claims that the album was a third attempt at doing a follow-up to his 1983 megahit, stating that if they had intended to make a Let's Dance II, they would've done so back when it was still relevant.
That said, the album acts as a Spiritual Successor to the album that first catapulted Bowie into international superstardom (itself a self-professed successor to Young Americans), combining Bowie's trademark art rock with an en vogue genre of Black dance music: Contemporary R&B in this case. Combined with the artistic renaissance that followed, it acts as an apt casting off of the legacy of Bowie's '80s period, briefly bringing back the suit-clad, pop-peddling Sharp-Dressed Man for one final album before definitively closing the door on it. At the same time, its Electronic Music influences, described by Bowie as his own take on House Music, would point the way for his forthcoming experiments with Alternative Dance and industrial rock, straddling the line between the recent past and the immediate future.
Black Tie White Noise became Bowie's first album to reach No. 1 on the UK Albums chart since Tonight in 1984 and his last to do so until The Next Day 20 years later, though in the US it would peak at a more modest No. 39 on the Billboard 200, signifying Bowie's return to mere cult popularity in America after having previously maintained a good mainstream standing since Young Americans in 1975. The album would additionally be certified gold in the UK, Canada, and Japan, missing certification in the United States (his first album to do so since Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)).
The singles produced by this album comprised of the UK Top 10 hit "Jump They Say", the Title Track, and "Miracle Goodnight".
- "The Wedding" (5:04)
- "You've Been Around" (4:45)
- "I Feel Free"note (4:52)
- "Black Tie White Noise" (4:52)
- "Jump They Say" (4:22)
- "Nite Flights"note (4:30)
- "Pallas Athena" (4:40)
- "Miracle Goodnight" (4:14)
- "Don't Let Me Down & Down"note (4:55)
- "Looking for Lester" (5:36)
- "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday"note (4:14)
- "The Wedding Song" (4:29)
Bonus tracks on the initial CD release
- "Jump They Say (Alternate Mix)" (3:58)
- "Lucy Can't Dance" (5:45)
"Putting on the black tie, cranking out the white tro-o-opes":
- Album Intro Track: "The Wedding", an instrumental crescendo that builds up to the main body of the record and sets up a pair of Book Ends with "The Wedding Song".
- Answer Song: The Title Track acts as one to Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory", featuring a similar message promoting racial unity but examining the reality of what it'd take to attain that goal in the context of the LA riots.
- Book Ends: "The Wedding" and "The Wedding Song" are variations of one another, and respectively serve as the first and final tracks on the album.
- Call-Back: "You've Been Around" contains the lyric "You've ch-ch-ch-changed me," a clear reference to "Changes" from Hunky Dory.
- Color Motifs: White appears to be one for this album. The album cover makes considerable use of whitish tones, the disc label and interior tray art are predominantly white, the back cover and liner notes feature heavy white portions, and the jewel case's disc tray is clear (a rarity in 1993; all-transparent jewel cases wouldn't become standard for another two years), exposing the white background behind it.
- Cover Version: Four such songs fall into this category:
- "I Feel Free": Cream
- "Nite Flights": The Walker Brothers
- "Don't Let Me Down & Down": Tahra Mint Hembara, a friend of Iman. Bowie discovered the song while browsing Iman's CD collection and decided to cover the track as a wedding gift to her.
- "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday": Morrissey. The song's parent album, Your Arsenal, was produced by former Bowie sideman Mick Ronson, who plays lead guitar on Bowie's version of "I Feel Free".
- Driven to Suicide: The protagonist of the song and video "Jump They Say".
- Epic Rocking: "The Wedding" and "Looking for Lester" are both over five minutes.
- Face on the Cover: The album cover just a close-up of his face.
- Gratuitous Panning: The first verse of "I Know It's Gonna Happen Today" has all the instruments in the right channel and Bowie's voice in the left, mimicking the primitive form of stereo mixing that was common in the '60s and tying in with the song's retraux take on R&B.
- Grief Song: "Jump They Say" is a belated dedication to Bowie's half-brother, Terry Burns, who committed suicide in 1985.
- Hard Truth Aesop: "Black Tie White Noise", which Bowie wrote in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots, presents the Aesop "Racial harmony is possible, but not without great difficulty and violence along the way."
- Instrumentals: "The Wedding" and "Looking For Lester".
- In the Style of: Bowie's cover of "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday" was deliberately performed to match the style of its original artist, Morrissey, who in turn based the song on Bowie's vocal style. Bowie noted the circularity of this in an interview, while biographer Nicholas Pegg described it as "Bowie covers Morrissey parodying Ziggy Stardust in the style of Young Americans."
- Let's Duet: The Title Track features black New Jack Swing artist Al B. Sure! duetting with the white Bowie as part of its message about race relations.
- Lighter and Softer: In comparison to both Never Let Me Down and the two Tin Machine studio albums, Black Tie White Noise is poppier and less dour in its subject matter (partly due to Bowie coming fresh off the heels of his wedding with Iman, partly due to being produced by Nile Rodgers, who had previously produced Let's Dance). That said, the Title Track and "Jump They Say" still demonstrate Bowie's willingness to cover less-than-optimistic topics in his work.
- Limited Lyrics Song: "Pallas Athena", which consists entirely of voice clips of a man saying "God is on top of it all; that's all we are," and a choir singing "we are— we are— we are— we are— we are— we are praying."
- New Sound Album: Compared to the pop rock sound of his last solo album and the hard rock/proto-grunge sound of his Tin Machine duology, Black Tie White Noise is more a blend of art rock, acid jazz, Contemporary R&B, and electronic music, being most easily categorizable as adult contemporary; Bowie himself stated that his goal with the album was to create "a new kind of melodic form of house."
- One-Steve Limit: Averted; one of the musicians on the album is Lester Bowie, who was unrelated to David Bowie.
- Other Common Music Video Concepts:
- The Making Of The Video/Monochrome Backdrop: Although not an official music video, "Nite Flights" has Bowie being filmed in front of a blue screen with multiple spotlights being shone on him.
- Painting the Medium: The Title Track opens with the sound of record static, subtly alluding to how long the fight for racial harmony in the United States has been going for. Additionally, the music video prominently uses bright, saturated colors in its shots of L.A. as a not-so-subtle plea for multiculturalism.
- Performance Video: The Title Track's music video centers around Bowie and Al B. Sure! performing the song in a junkyard, interspersed with shots of black, white, Latin-American, and Korean-American residents in Los Angeles.
- Pun-Based Title: The album's name plays on Bowie's status as a white artist performing music rooted in Black culture — "Black [Cultural] Tie[s], White [Person's] Noise".
- Real Life Writes the Plot: "Jump They Say" is a reflection on the 1985 suicide of Terry Burns, Bowie's half-brother; Burns had previously been an inspiration for several of Bowie's other songs. According to Bowie, the reason why he took eight years to address the subject was because of how difficult it was for him to confront in his work.
- Retraux: "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday" is produced to sound like a '60s Phil Spector-style R&B tune, featuring a dense, orchestrated arrangement, a choir of female backup singers, and a first verse where the vocals and instruments are panned to separate channels. The approach ties in with Bowie's intention to make the song fit the style of its original artist, a known '60s enthusiast.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The title track is less than subtle about the fact that it was inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, openly mentioning "the glare of an L.A. fire" in its first verse. Bowie himself likened the riots to an unsuccessful prison riot, "as if innocent inmates of some vast prison were trying to break out — break free from their bonds," and implied in a 1993 interview that one of his goals with the song was to highlight the change that still needs to be made.
- Self-Deprecation: The "White Noise" in the title refers to Bowie's own music.
- Sexy Sax Man: The album prominently features Bowie playing saxophone, which combined with his "crooner" image during its promotional cycle, ties in with the heavy focus on love and marriage in the lyrics.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: Promoting this album saw Bowie adopt a "crooner" image modeled after mid-20th century traditional pop acts like Frank Sinatra and prior collaborator Bing Crosby; consequently, promotional material from this era was punctuated by a number of stylish getups meant to project an image of suaveness.
- The Title Track includes the phrase "what's going on?" as an allusion to the Marvin Gaye album/song of the same name, thanks to both the Bowie song and the Gaye album featuring social commentary on race relations.
- The experiments conducted on his character in "Jump They Say" are based on those conducted on the protagonist of the French sci-fi short La Jetée; The Criterion Collection's DVD of the short includes an excerpt from a French TV program about this video and its homage.
- Another series of shots near the end of the video for "Jump They Say" mimic the infamous photo of Evelyn McHale's 1947 suicide, tying in with the song's subject matter of Bowie's half-brother's own suicide in 1985.
- Singer Name Drop: The alternate mix of "Jump They Say", included as a bonus track on the original CD release, includes a repeated sample of a woman saying "David's talking."
- The Something Song: "The Wedding Song"
- Special Guest:
- Two of Bowie's '70s-era associates have guest parts on the album: former sideman Mick Ronson plays guitar on "I Feel Free", while pianist Mike Garson plays on "Looking for Lester". Ronson's contribution would be one of his final performances before his death from liver cancer just 24 days after the album's release.
- Jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie (no relation) plays trumpet parts throughout the album; the song "Looking for Lester" is titled after him as a thank-you.
- Spiritual Antithesis: Bowie consciously designed the Title Track to be one for Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory". While both tracks are anti-racism duets between popular Black and white artists wrapped in music metaphors, "Black Tie White Noise" is much gritter, both musically and lyrically. The song is written in a minor key rather than a major one, has a sound rooted strongly in Hip-Hop and Contemporary R&B rather than traditional pop, and is more pragmatic than optimistic in its message, highlighting the violent struggle that inevitably litters the path to racial unity (having been penned in the wake of the LA Riots).
- Surreal Music Video: "Jump They Say" and "Miracle Goodnight".
- Take That!: "Black Tie White Noise" jabs at multiple famous "unity" campaigns— Benetton ads depicting integrated communities, the Civil Rights Movement hymn "We Shall Overcome", and the Live Aid charity single "We Are the World"— depicting them as shallow platitudes that don't actually do much to improve race relations.
- Translated Cover Version: Bowie re-recorded "Don't Let Me Down & Down" in Indonesian for the Singaporean CD release; this version is included at the end of the album as a bonus track there, replacing the JAE-E remix of "Jump They Say".
- Vanilla Edition: Later reissues of the CD version omit the bonus tracks that were included on initial copies. This is even the case on Japanese reissues, despite that region being well-known for including extra songs as bonus tracks.
- The Whitest Black Guy: Implicitly discussed in the Title Track, which Bowie stated was in part a plea against assimilation in favor of multiculturalism, feeling that the African-American community could best thrive through a distinct Black cultural identity.