New Angels of Promise

November 7, 2013

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.”

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Look Back In Anger

July 22, 2011

Look Back In Anger.
Look Back In Anger (live, 1983).
Look Back In Anger (remake, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (broadcast, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1995).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1996).
Look Back In Anger (live, 2002).

“Look Back In Anger” reflects Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”; each is the clouded mirror of the other. Like “Man,” “Anger” is the record of a visitation, one that, in “Anger”‘s case, ends with a death (or at least a proposed one). If Lodger and Scary Monsters are Bowie finally considering the prospect of decline and tearing himself up, sampling and dispersing himself, “Look Back In Anger” is at the heart of these records. It’s a dry, weird farewell to a muse, decades before Bowie (apparently) stopped recording and performing.

Bowie had written the lyric of “Man Who Sold the World” as he sat in a studio reception room, under pressure to get a vocal on tape so the album would be finished. With no time to second guess or overwrite, Bowie seemed to transcribe lines straight out of mind: it was a pop lyric as dream journal. Writing “Man” triggered something, it freed Bowie from the stiltedness and strain of much of his late ’60s work, and reconnected him to what he had first touched with “Space Oddity.” It was, in retrospect, the start of Bowie’s mature songwriting—in the months after he wrote “Man” suddenly came “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” “Life on Mars,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Moonage Daydream.” “Man” was the key that fit the lock.

So on the far end of a decade that Bowie, in part, had authored was “Anger,” which sets the stage for the even grander renunciation of “Ashes to Ashes.” In “Man” the singer passes someone on the stair. They’ve already met, or they will one day. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” the other marvels. “Look Back in Anger” is, perhaps, when he died; it’s the same encounter, as seen from another perspective; it’s the second meeting of the two at a later time. It’s funny, too: an archangel appears and no one pays him any mind. So he flicks through a magazine and waits, bored, for whatever cataclysm he’s come to presage or deliver.

Bowie’s best lyrics can seem like fragments of overheard conversations with himself. The verse and refrain of “Anger” are some of the strangest, though they’re in simple and clear language:

“You know who I am,” he said.
The speaker was an angel.
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings, closed his eyes and moved his lips.
“It’s time we should be going.”

It’s recitative: no rhymes, no rhythms, a disjunct melody. The pacing is also off: there’s a two-bar gap between the first and second lines, enough time to make you wonder if “you know who I am” is the only line in the verse, then there’s a sudden tumble of words. Bowie’s performance hangs between the sublime and the ludicrous. As with “Station to Station,” Bowie is the only rock singer who could sing lines like these with a straight face and not, somehow, seem like a buffoon. He sounds like he’s trying to do the voice of Yahweh, then croaks out “angel” (an echo back to “Golden Years”) and “going.”

The eight-bar refrain is a statement: Bowie placed it within quotation marks on the LP lyric sheet. But who says it? Only the angel has spoken so far. If the chorus is his, then the refrain commands the singer to assess the ruins of his life before departing it. Look back in anger—see how much you’ve wasted, look what never came to be. But the refrain could equally be the narrator’s fervent response, the words of someone who’s long awaited death, who seems to have craved it since birth. The title phrase becomes a dark joke, a dying man indignant at ever having been alive.*

Fittingly, the refrain’s a duet. Tony Visconti’s backing vocals open the chorus: plaintive, narrow in range, sounding like John Lennon’s sped-up backing vocals on Sgt. Pepper tracks like “She’s Leaving Home.” Then in the fourth bar Bowie sweeps on stage, almost an octave higher than Visconti. Bowie’s part is a long fall to earth. He sings the title line as a descending triplet (“look-back-in“, G#-F#-E) then strangles out “anger,” which again falls over three notes; he breaks the pattern with the upward push of “driven by the” (or “see it in my“) that sags on its last note (“night” or “eyes”), and he ends the chorus with another descending triplet, now an octave lower than his arrival (“till-you-come“), coming to a stop on the root note, F#.

That’s all the song is, really, barring the four-bar bridge (“no one seemed to hear him“) that passes in a flash, and Carlos Alomar’s 16-bar guitar solo (see below). “Anger,” in E major, follows a basic progression of E/D/A/F#m/C/G, used for both verse and chorus, while the bridge is simply the last two chords of the sequence severed from the original progression.

“Anger,” cerebral and odd, could’ve expired on the heights but it’s invigorated by a strong, propulsive rhythm track—Sean Mayes pounding the bass end of his piano, Alomar’s guitar darting and jabbing around Dennis Davis’ drumming (George Murray’s bass seems to have gone missing, though, a victim of one of the muddier mixes on the album).

When Bowie asked him for a guitar break to fill a chorus, Alomar, weary of the lead guitar acrobatics that defined much of Bowie’s’70s records, instead thought “if I’m going to take a solo, I’m going to take a rhythm guitar solo,” as he told David Buckley, adding that his inspiration was Lennon’s rhythm work on Beatles’ records. Another influence or, more directly, challenge was Nile Rodgers, who by late ’78 was making his name with Chic. Alomar and Rodgers were the same age and had been friends as teenagers in New York, and both had cut their teeth in session work and journeyman R&B bands. Rodgers’ guitar style—building riffs out of a set of syncopated chords with shortened tones, as he tended to only strum three strings at a time (see here)—echoed Alomar’s, and “Anger” can seem like Alomar translating Rodgers, or going him one better: Alomar’s solo is a volley between two contrasted, but fairly similar, lightning-fast riffs. Again, a pairing in a song full of them.

Davis doesn’t drive the track as much as he ferments it: ringing the bell on his ride cymbal throughout, playing a rolling fill that matches Bowie’s sudden run of words. He annexes whatever spaces he finds open, using every type of fill imaginable, hi-hat, snare, toms. Davis kicks off the track a beat before the rest of the band, similar to how he had punched in “What in the World.”

Eno’s contributions are smears of sound, giving the track an ominous, gauzy backdrop. Sifting through Mountain Studios’ brass collection, Eno had found a huntsman’s horn (called “horse trumpet” on the sleeve) and a French horn that he renamed the “Eroica horn,” referencing the horn’s prominence in Beethoven’s 3rd.** Each horn is so processed and distorted they could as well be guitars or synthesizers. There’s also a theremin (a real one, or a simulation?), first appearing at 2:30 in the video linked above, just after the final refrain ends.

Bowie and David Mallet filmed a promo for the song in 1979, where Bowie, in an artist’s loft, paints himself as an angel and then, reverse-Dorian Gray style, transforms into a grotesque with paint- and clay-encrusted skin. In the final shot, Bowie drags himself up the stairs and crawls under his bed. It’s as though he’s been made leprous by his art, and he’s sickened by himself.

It’s one resolution, at least—the song itself offers none. The narrative just stops, as there’s no second verse after the bridge where the angel, bored, seemed indifferent to how the encounter played out. Bowie’s singing, however, adds a last piece of drama, as the final refrain finds him breaking the descending vocal pattern, instead willing himself to push upward: look BACK in AN-ger! Feel it in my VOICE! with the final “till you come” a slow, final surrender.

“Anger,” one of Bowie’s major songs of the late ’70s, never got the attention it merited, so it’s similar to “Man Who Sold the World” in that regard (though it never had a revival like Nirvana gave the latter). Released as a single only in the US and Canada, it went nowhere.

Bowie went back to it in 1988, revising “Anger” for a series of concerts and, soon afterward, he cut a new version of the song, extending it over seven minutes. The attempt seems to have been to make the song more epic but it just seems longer, with Bowie not altering the vocal line in any substantive way, leaving Erdal Kizilcay on drums and bass to add some flash, though his metronomic drumming suffers when compared with Davis’ exuberant performance. The revised “Anger” is also the first appearance on a Bowie record of Reeves Gabrels, and it previews Gabrels’ work with Bowie over the next decade—Gabrels offers a mix of go-for-broke adventurism and a lack of restraint.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as a single in the US and Canada in August 1979 (RCA PB 11724, c/w “Repetition,” didn’t chart). The 1988 studio remake first appeared on the Ryko CD issue of Lodger in 1991; it’s currently out of print. Played during the 1983 tour, in 1988, the mid-’90s tours and in 2002, including a BBC Radio 2 special on 18 September 2002 (eventually issued on An Evening With David Bowie).

* Of course the title is also referencing John Osbourne‘s classic 1957 play, though as one commenter said, the lyric of “Repetition” is far more a reference to Osbourne’s work than “Anger” is.

** Especially the French horn’s “mistaken” early theme recapitulation in the first movement (around 5:40 in Bernstein’s performance of it here).

Top: Alan Denney, “Michael Ferreira Funeral,” Stoke Newington, December 1978.