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.”