New Angels of Promise

99ricecake

New Angels of Promise.
New Angels of Promise (Omikron intro sequence).
New Angels of Promise (full Omikron version).

To the Angel of Approved Estimates,
to the Angels of Promise Across the Entire
Spectrum. To the Surplus Angels of Acquisition,
I cannot hear the new instructions,
let alone obey them.

Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love, 1998.

“New Angels of Promise,” used to score the opening credits of the Omikron: the Nomad Soul video game, has a reservoir of memory to give it depth: it’s a direct descendent of, and answer to, “Sons of the Silent Age” and “Look Back in Anger.” As with several ‘Hours’ tracks, Bowie seems to be presuming a familiar audience here. The drive to convert new listeners, or to aggravate old ones, is no longer a factor: this is Bowie making a “Bowie song” intended for the faithful. It’s a song so riddled through with the past that it’s barely coherent as its own piece.

“Sons” gave “New Angels” melodies—Bowie used some of the same phrasings (“I am a blind man, she is my eyes” is almost note-for-note “Sam Therapy and King Dice“)—and structure. Both songs have a snaky instrumental opening; an eight-line verse, where Bowie’s almost conversational voice alternates with a guitar/keyboard establishing the chords; a sudden modulation to a harmonized chorus. “New Angels” sits within the traces of “Sons”: it’s as if the 1999 song inhabits the same radio frequency at a different point in time.

And lyrically, “New Angels” is a sequel of “Look Back in Anger.” In the latter, Bowie had encountered a bored, bureaucratic angel who’d indifferently summoned him: the world could be ending, or at least the singer’s part in it, but hey, there’s no hurry. This was an “angel of promise,” a vague concept in Christian theology, essentially an angel who comes in advance of some covenant with God being enacted. Take, for instance, the angels who heralded, to their respective parents, the births of John the Baptist and Christ. As the centuries went on, and particularly once America got going, the angel of promise was often domesticated, reduced to something like a guardian angel, a soul’s personal advocate or a genial harbinger of prosperity.

But the angels of promise aren’t necessarily bringing good news: any memos from the top office should fill we temporary employees with foreboding. Their growing rarity also indicated a spiritually diminished time: as per a late 19th Century sermon by George Davis Herron, these angels are actually found all over time and space, just unseen: “the angels of promise are always on the wing. God is always speaking, but man does not hear.”

So Bowie sets his new angels (God having rebranded his angels like a box of cereal) as a pair of cold, despairing passersby, lost in a crowd: one’s blind, the other serves as his eyes. In the last verse he calls them, in a wonderful phrase, “tabular lovers.” An obvious play on his earlier “fabulous lovers,” it conveys an image of the angels being immovable objects, like two pillars (or the stone and wax Bewlay Brothers), as well as being two lines of data, rows of binary code. They haunt the song, but they’re motionless figures; if they’ve made a judgment, it’s happened already and they’re just sticking around to see how it plays out.

Given this dense interweaving of Bowie memory and favorite symbolism, the music seems almost secondary. Its arrangement and rhythms are uninspired, the repetition of an entire verse is overkill, the odd synthesizer squeaks (“hey, remember I made Earthling?”) are just clutter, its production is oddly murky and thin in places. Sterling Campbell sounds like he’s playing through a wall; Reeves Gabrels’ rhythm guitar in the chorus is parked so far back in the mix it’s as if it’s bleeding through from an earlier take. (To be fair, the Omikron mix is much livelier: it’s far and away the best version.) The verse chords are essentially those of “Survive”: a tonic and flatted VII chord gravitating off each other, while the chorus’ shift to F# minor is a dogged advance through the key, like someone climbing a hill only to fall back to the ground.*

Still there are some pleasures to be found: take the intricacies of Bowie’s backing vocals in the verses, like the descending “sooo-far” that collides with the start of a phrase, and it’s good for a game of spot-the-reference. Is the descending “oh-oh-oh-oh” hook in the verse from Elvis Costello’s “Blue Chair”? Is its Mellotron intro a tweak of Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto”? It’s as if the music is enacting the spiritually-barren, memory-clotted world of the lyric. Its parts are greater than its sum.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studios, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios. Released on ‘Hours’; the Omikron version was later included on a 2004 reissue (Bowie flew in “suspicious minds” to replace “Omikron” to start the ‘Hours’ version’s chorus. It was apparently a last-minute call, as the lyric sheet still has “Omikron”). Never performed live.

* (F#m/G/G#/A/F#m, or i-IIb-II-III-i—though you could make the case the intro/chorus is still in the verse’s A major (it would be vi-VIIb-VII-I-vi in that case).

Top: “Corey,” “New Year Rice Cake, January 1999.”

42 Responses to New Angels of Promise

  1. Mr Tagomi says:

    Great Scott, that is an inspired analysis.

    I must say, I have a much higher opinion of the song. It’s one of my favourites from the Hours era.

    I take the slight murkiness and jerkiness as a deliberate effect, as I do with The Dreamers. It agrees with me. It sort of suits the whole feel of the game, which may be why.

  2. For me, one of Hours’ biggest letdowns is the mastering. It’s far too clean and glossy and it weakens quite a few of the album’s stronger moments (which I’m sure I will bring up in later posts). The Omikron mix of this one is far better, I think.

  3. s.t. says:

    This song always inspired an attempt at “spot the reference” for me as well. There’s the Gary Numan synthesizer on the Hours version, perhaps an attempt at reconciliation with the New Wave Boys?

    Speaking of New Wave, the main reference I hear is Adam & the Ants. Bowie’s yelps are especially Antlike, and the the line “we are the fabulous lovers” would have fit right into a song like “Press Darlings.”

    I agree that the jerkiness seems intentional (perhaps Reeves’ last attempt to keep things edgy), and I think it’s more successful here than on The Dreamers.

    Still, I feel like it’s a good sketch for what could have been a great song.

  4. MC says:

    Really good assessment and analysis of what for me is the strongest of Hours’ dud tracks. A good vocal performance and a good intro (never caught the similarity to San Jacinto, btw), but a slackly-developed song. The energy just sinks as it progresses. A big fault is the production, of course, and I wonder, as others have (including David Buckley) why Tony Visconti was not brought on board this album, though I guess future entries might expand on that.

  5. Diamond Duke says:

    A song that I really like a great deal, but which I think falls rather short of true greatness – much like the entire ‘hours…’ ( :D ;) ) album itself. It’s got a darkly melancholic air which certainly does harken back to the “Heroes” album and certainly Sons Of The Silent Age (and as such is appropriately followed by the equally Berlin-recalling Brilliant Adventure). dominiclcarlsson is absolutely right about the mastering being far too clean and glossy. Even its more stylistically tech-y predecessors Outside and Earthling feel more raw. However, I don’t feel that the Omikron mix is superior. It feels a tad less dry, perhaps, but not necessarily better.

    I fully agree with most people who say that ‘hours…’ isn’t necessarily David Bowie’s finest hour. It definitely has a “phoned-in” quality about it, and doesn’t really have as much in the way of passion or commitment as Outside and Earthling before it, or the future Tony Visconti productions that would follow. However, that doesn’t make it ‘hours…’ a total loss. There is certainly a great songwriting chemistry between Bowie and Gabrels (also the saving grace of TM2), and Bowie certainly can’t be accused of half-heartedly chasing after any kind of commercial gravy train here (an accusation that can certainly be leveled at much of Bowie’s ’80s work, including Tonight and Never Let Me Down – guilty pleasure though the latter may be for yours truly!).

  6. gcreptile says:

    Brilliant article, spot-on. And I thought I was so clever hearing Peter Gabriel in there…. The “Sons of the Silent Age” connection is grand. In fact, I don’t know why I never really liked “hours…”. At least half of the album is quite good.

  7. 87Fan says:

    I never thought that ‘hours…’ was horrible, but I never thought it was great. Perhaps everyone’s general ambivalence towards the album explains why it (among all of Bowie’s later albums) has the least-informative Wikipedia page of them all.

  8. Maj says:

    Never been my favourite. Would probably find it annoying had it appeared on Heroes too, though I’m not as allergic to it as to the Secret Life of Arabia. ;)

    It does have some hooks but it’s a wee bit tedious and gets on my nerves. So much so I used to skip it in my walkman days (switched the sides, rather), and rarely ever got to listen to the Dreamers, which nowadays are one of my favourites on Hours.

  9. Momus says:

    1. I would say that when we’re discussing the Gary Numanesque (and this song is Numanesque, but only insofar as Numan plucked a rib from The Man Who Sold The World and turned it into a whole career) we’re discussing the schizoid personality, and self-criticisms thereof.

    2. Bowie famously didn’t like Numan; his public comment on him was that Numan was limiting himself enormously by mining schizoid and sci-fi thematics like those on Bowie’s 1970 album, and that life wasn’t really like that.

    3. Since the chorus mentions a lonely crowd, let’s note that one of the best-selling works of American sociology is David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950). The book divides humanity into three groups: the Tradition-Directed, the Inner-Directed and the Other-Directed. For Riesman, mid-20th century America was transforming from a society of inner-directed people (carrying their own “moral gyroscope” based on their formative experiences, and more keen on self-honed principles than the love of others) to a society of other-directed team players and corporate drones for whom relating to others was everything. This modern crowd is “lonely” because it craves connection and approval above all else.

    4. This song seems to describe a small band of Nietzschean infiltrators moving through the lonely crowd, an atavistic horde attempting to return society to the values of the inner-directed. I call them Nietzschean because the Nietzschean overman is Bowie’s way out of the tribal feelgood dope-fug of the 1960s, and because the overman is an inner-directed figure par excellence, focused on power and philosophy and inner consistency rather than the approval of his peers.

    5. For Riesman, the limitation of the inner-directed is a certain inflexibility, a rigidity. Bowie seems to agree: in Sons of the Silent Age the type sorts fruitlessly through “one-inch thoughts” and seems bloodless, sexless and passionless. The chorus rejects him, just as Bowie rejected Numan: “Let’s find another way down”.

    6. In New Angels of Promise the inner-directed horde is almost a sort of underground movement, the start of a coming race whose success is far from assured. With threadbare morale they’re barely clinging to life, fuelled only by hatred for the sheeplike society around them. They might be terrorists, or long-coated shooter schoolkids. Like Numan, they’re not necessarily being approved by Bowie, but they interest him.

    7. For all that this is an interesting thematic that runs through the whole of Bowie’s songwriting, I think this is a lazy, lazy autopilot version of the theme. At this point in Bowie’s writing he’s not really thinking anything through, merely content to make farcical and failed versions of his old successful tragedies.

    8. Some interesting photos emerged of Bowie’s appearance at MoMA to celebrate Tilda Swinton’s 53rd birthday this week. In one of them he’s chatting (with obvious empathy) with Michael Bloomberg, a somewhat Nietzschean figure himself. It joins pap-shots of Bowie with Blair, Bowie with Clinton, and all those songs in which Bowie plays a politician asking for our vote, and makes you wonder whether his recurrent criticism of the inner-directed overman isn’t a sort of sneaking admiration.

  10. Ramzi says:

    “it’s as if the 1999 song inhabits the same radio frequency at a different point in time”. My my, what a lovely sentence.

    Anyway, I see this as one of the album’s more interesting songs (whether you deem that to be an easy feat is your call).

  11. Ididtheziggy says:

    Great analysis as always, but I too think you may have been a little harsh. I said in a long ago post that we can really see Bowie looking back on this album and this is another great example of that. It’s far from perfect, but I rather enjoy this one. Engineering and production is obviously it’s biggest flaw. I think this whole album would have been best served with Visconti, but you probably could say that for the preceding 18 years. Thank goodness he is soon back in the fold. I’ve never really been sure how much Visconti defined some great albums or how much influence he had over them, but Bowie sure is better with him than without.

  12. s.t. says:

    Considering that Omikron was mentioned by name in the original chorus, it’s possible that the angelic characters in the song represent gamers inhabiting the titular simulated universe. I think Bowie was likely taken by the game’s premise, and perhaps by what the phenomenon of gaming represented: disconnected engagement with an alternate reality.

    Rather than going the Hindu or Buddhist route, he seems to have taken it to Christian terrains. Gamers are this generation’s angels of promise, a race of ubermenschen to triumph over the stiff, lonely crowds of souls run by simple algorithms. It has a sad poetry to it. A fitting sequel premise to Look Back in Anger, though not nearly as fleshed out.

  13. Mother says:

    Magnificent analysis.

    “this is Bowie making a “Bowie song” intended for the faithful. It’s a song so riddled through with the past that it’s barely coherent as its own piece”

    This is probably why I’ve always loved it. Best song on Hours for me. The album finishes strongly.

  14. humanizingthevacuum says:

    For the first time since spring 2000 I relistened — nothing’s changed. The chugging, unimaginative arrangement with Bowie’s vocal plumage adorning it, the portentous lyrics — it doesn’t say anything at all. Give me Never Let Me Down‘s bad taste over Tonight and this album’s strained “adulthood.”

  15. Mike F says:

    Cooking up a new song is a lot of work. You need to come up with new ideas, new music, fresh ingredients. On “New Angels,” they grabbed a bunch of old Bowieisms from the freezer, threw them in the microwave, and made an insta-Bowie tune. Lots of repeated parts to help disguise the shortage of ideas. I imagine it works as background music for a video game but this is weak material for an album.

    • Eder R. M. says:

      For me, you are describing here Heathen, not this song at all. Heathen is THE “let’s find the old formulae – and hey, Visconti is here to help!”. Bowie dully emulating Bowie the whole freaking album.

  16. Mike F says:

    In other news, Bowie has a brand new Louis Vuitton commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpTwgRk2aUU

    Meh.

    • Remco says:

      Meh indeed. One of the more pointless moves of his career.

      • col1234 says:

        remember the man once did a Pepsi commercial with Tina Turner. This Vuitton ad is like an Antonioni film by comparison

      • Maj says:

        Heh. Exactly, Chris. :)

        Plus, it’s pretty, so I guess it serves its purpose well. fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion. etc.

      • s.t. says:

        I’m glad to see him “out and about” in the public eye again. It’s good to have him back, even in pointless 1 minute commercials.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        He followed this one up by having a heart attack, rather undermining the central message.

      • Mike F says:

        The problem with the current ad is that it ruins his new mystique thing. He doesn’t do interviews, promotion, play live, etc. But he does do silly ads for incredibly expensive designer handbags.

        She closes her eyes and that old rockstar guy playing that weird piano thing disappears and a gorgeous handbag appears! Oooh, makes me want to shop, shop, shop!!!

      • s.t. says:

        But truly, what mystique is left after the Sears Robuck endorsements, muppet villain bulges, Jagger dances, neon suit rock tantrums, Al B! Sure duets, tech enterprises, Vittel water ads…basically 83-03? Even his good work from those years came more from moxy than mystique.

        His return this year after a decade in the dark sure was shocking, but that doesn’t erase the past. It seems he wants minimal exposure these days, to release what he wants, and to pop in and out according to his whim. But that doesn’t mean he’s transformed into Scott Walker. He has always liked to camp it up, to make a buck, and to be silly from time to time.

        At least he’s not doing testimonials for acne treatments!

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        I dunno: using the Bowie Image to sell a product preserves his mystique! There’s nothing personal or corporeal about it; he imbues the product with Bowieness.

        Also, this is how artists sell their own product in the 21st century — and it works (for example Justin Timberlake).

      • Eder R. M. says:

        Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion indeed! At least, one cay say that Bowie *is* and *has* good taste. 8)

  17. Anonymous says:

    … Justin Timberlake?!

  18. Bruised Passivity says:

    When I first learned that Hours was a compilation of various music projects, including a video game soundtrack, the album’s strange unevenness finally made sense. New Angels of Promise screams video game music to me, especially with the (annoying) electronic vocal treatments and almost pixilated sound production. Having said that, I have times when I really enjoy this song. As far as recycling old song elements, and bowrrowing from other musicians goes, isn’t that basically a trademark of Bowie’s music by this point? Lyrically, I also find some parallels with We Are The Dead as the Angels (“the silent ones”) could be speaking from a place of apathy as they carry out there surveillance duties on the “lonely crowds” that “don’t hear them coming”… Also I agree that the original Omikron mix is the superior version.

    RE: Louis Vuitton commercial… Beautifully conceived and filmed, very disappointed by the song choice. I always felt this song was anti war not pro fashion. David, what where you thinking?

  19. sidthecat says:

    The word that springs to mind is: attenuated.
    Stretched thin – stuff that would have seemed weak even as filler. Did he need the closet space for something else?

  20. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Rather than shooting Louis Vuitton commercials, I would rather have seen Bowie break his self-imposed media silence and say a bit more about the death of his old mate Lou Reed than the single sentence he trotted out on Twitter. There’s a 30 page spread in Rolling Stone online where Lou’s fellow musicians and other contemporaries share memories and anecdotes about the great man and his influence, and Bowie’s input is disappointingly absent.

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      Fine with me. His silence tells me he felt more than he can say.

    • Mike F says:

      I also thought David’s four word Lou Reed tribute was oddly terse. I thought it would have been more respectful to at least write a full paragraph describing Lou’s influence. Sure many others did nice tributes but David is one of the bigger names who collaborated with Lou. He could have just posted it on his website without doing any media interviews.

      By the way, Penn Jillette (the magician) did an amazing podcast about his friendship with Lou Reed:
      http://pennsundayschool.com/page/episodes

    • Eder R. M. says:

      What will matter ind the end is Reed’s music – and in that, Bowie had its fair share.

  21. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    … er sorry, make that a 20 page spread.

  22. Bruised Passivity says:

    It’s my understanding that David was in Venice shooting this commercial way back in the summer and he couldn’t have forseen the commercial being release only a few weeks after Lou’s death. My impression is that Mr. Jones is a very private person so his limited comments as Bowie are not surprising. We all deal with death and grief in our own ways.

  23. humanizingthevacuum says:

    The fake humility and insistence on pushing an opinion you’d rather inflict instead of discuss is getting tiresome, Uriah Heep.

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