Our new recurring column ‘Lest We Forget’ is devoted to revisiting albums that have been unfairly overlooked or marginalized within the broader critical and commercial context of our favorite artists’ discographies. We hope that our recollections shine a newfound light on these underappreciated gems from the past, and as always, we encourage you, our readers, to weigh in with your own perspectives and memories in the comments below.
A decade had come and gone between Let's Dance (1983) and Black Tie White Noise (1993), David Bowie's 15th and 18th studio albums, respectively. Let's Dance was symbolic of Bowie as an active force in the “MTV Age,” a man able to co-exist—and flourish—among the disciples he had inspired. However, the victory was costly. Shortly after that 1983 effort, Bowie found himself cornered, creating for the sake of competition. The suppression of his instincts showed on Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987).
Bowie's dissatisfaction with his artistic state of affairs led him to form Tin Machine, a fit and fighting band that cut two LPs in 1989 and 1991. An additionally bold tactic was employed between the two Tin Machine records too, in the form of his 1990 Sound+Vision Tour, a “last hurrah” for his classics. Thankfully, that retirement of his hits was short-lived. Still, all of these events were only leading up to the aforementioned Black Tie White Noise, Bowie's first album of original material since 1987.
In 1992, the year Bowie began plotting the record, inspiration came from all around him. The Los Angeles riots (and their fallout), his marriage to Iman, and the variety of contemporary black music. With respect to rhythm and blues, he was a longtime admirer of the form. He mined it for several notable projects in his discography, namely Young Americans (1975) and Station to Station (1976). In Pablo Hewitt's 2012 book Bowie: Album by Album, Robert Elms penned the book's introduction and accurately described the Briton's take of American R&B as “arch, crystalline, fake but perfect.” Dubbed “plastic soul,” it was a tactful utilization of specific R&B aspects employed within Bowie's own musical formulas.
However, the lush Philly soul that was popular during Young Americans and Station to Station had given way to house music, hip-hop and various other black music genre cross blends by 1993. Bowie was intrigued and recruited Chic founder/producer Nile Rodgers to co-produce Black Tie White Noise. Their past history on Let's Dance gave Bowie the confidence they could tap into these emergent sounds without alienating his core base, while also widening his audience cache.
Barring some co-scripting from former Tin Machine member Reeves Gabriel and Rodgers, the record was written almost entirely by Bowie. Exceptions included Tahra Mint Hembara and Martine Valmont's “Don't Let Me Down & Down” and covers of Cream (“I Feel Free”), Scott Walker (“Nite Flights”) and Morrissey (“I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday”). Black Tie White Noise also featured the input from the Ziggy Stardust era veteran, guitarist Mick Ronson, who sadly passed away soon after the record's release.
Grafting the soulful strains of black dance, hip-hop, lovers rock and more onto his own exploratory art-rock inclinations, Bowie made an album complimentary to his musical persona. Said persona was at home in the club culture of the early 1990s, as the spicy, midtempo funk of “Miracle Goodnight” and “Pallas Athena” attest.
Laced with Bowie's striking saxophone work, the bookend instrumentals “The Wedding” and “The Wedding Song” were signposts to the general mood of Black Tie White Noise, the product of his union with Iman. That romantic energy put a skip in the sonic step of some of the set's darker material like “Jump They Say” and the title piece, a duet with urban radio lothario Al B. Sure!. Lyrically, these tracks engage with the personal (the 1985 suicide of Bowie's half-brother) and the external (racial inequality) conflicts that matter to Bowie.
Released on April 5, 1993, the LP placed Bowie back into the good graces of critics. Three singles—“Jump They Say,” “Black Tie White Noise,” and “Miracle Goodnight”—also helped to push Black Tie White Noise to gold selling status in the United Kingdom. Though it lacked an extended chart life globally, Black Tie White Noise was still seen as a “return to form.” While Bowie went on to further musical adventures, this long player represented a deeper “sea change” for him in hindsight. After years of making, breaking and (very briefly) following trends, Black Tie White Noise had Bowie acclimatize to and usurp a trend for his own ends, maintaining that unmistakable Thin White Duke standard for all others to follow.