David Bowie has always had a weakness for arresting imagery. Of course, that probably seems obvious to his fans; how else could Bowie have come up with such visually striking creations as Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke if he didn't know a thing or two about presentation and design?
But few things catch the singer's eye as dependably as Benetton ads do. "Have you heard about the new campaign where they've taken famous personalities and changed the color of their skin?" he asks over the phone from Britain. "The one that's causing the scandal in England at the moment is that the queen is now a black woman. It's created an extraordinary outrage over here, as you can imagine."
Needless to say, that's the whole idea behind the ads -- to shake up the status quo by upending our most basic assumptions of cultural identity -- and it's not hard to hear a certain admiration in the singer's voice as he describes the ads. After all, Bowie has had his bouts with the status quo, as in the early '70s when his gender-bending antics (both onstage and off) deftly short-circuited the knee-jerk sexual machismo of mainstream rock and roll.
But as much as he enjoys this current campaign, the Benetton ads he remembers most vividly are the ones that featured Spike Lee's take on the anti-police riots in Los Angeles last year. "Lee was set free to give his impressions of the racial situation in America," says Bowie.
"I thought it was odd that we'd get three pages of information about what was happening in inner-city America from a Benetton ad, and so little from the administration at that time. It just seemed sort of a topsy-turvy kind of thing."
Bowie did what he often does with topsy-turvy things -- he put it in a song. And that's how the title song from his new album, "Black Tie White Noise," begins:
Getting my facts from a Benetton ad
Looking through African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire.
"Black Tie White Noise" is classic Bowie -- witty, well-observed and deliciously ironic. The song is also catchy as blazes, thanks to its high-tech pulse and lush chorus. The other songs are no less appealing, be they as club-savvy and commercial as "Jump They Say," or as risky and improvisational as the jazzy "Looking for Lester." Bowie, it seems, has struck gold on all fronts with this one.
And coming as it does after several not-particularly-commercial albums with Tin Machine, some listeners are likely to take "Black Tie" as evidence that Bowie has put his guitar band behind him and returned to the mainstream rock of his 1983 album, "Let's Dance." But that, says Bowie, is hardly the case.
For one thing, he says, Tin Machine is far from finished. "We're working on the third [studio] album either later this year or the beginning of next year. On top of that, I'm doing a collaboration with Reeves Gabrels, the guitar player for a dance company called La La La Human Steps, a Canadian dance troupe. The choreographer has asked if I'll write a piece for them, and I thought that would be something Reeves and I could do."
So what prompted this album? Love. Specifically, the singer's recent marriage to supermodel Iman.
"It started in April or May last year," he says. "It became obvious that because of the church wedding that Iman and I were going to have, there was going to have to be some kind of music that was going to make both families comfortable -- what with her family being Muslim and my being Protestant.
"Having to write that music drew up a lot of emotional contact with myself, in terms of why I was getting married and what the commitment was actually about. There was a lot of heartfelt content that went into the writing of that music. And starting to work in that way was opening up a lot of other avenues."
His saxophone, for instance. Although Bowie has blown his own horn on other albums, he's never soloed to such an extent before.
What prompted the change? "It's a twofold reason," he says. "One was the fact that I really didn't want to have a guitar-oriented piece for the church. And also, by the end of the Tin Machine tour, I was playing a fair amount of saxophone on stage with the band. When the tour finished, I just kept on playing, and I found that I was actually starting to write with it. It was a natural evolution from that."
Despite the unusual instrumental colors, Bowie dismisses the notion that there's much innovation in these new songs. "Because the emotional cry on the album was, for me, probably its premise, this wasn't me trying to show off new techniques or innovative ways of writing," he says. "It was almost sort of readdressing what I've done as a writer, and deciding which of the techniques I was thoroughly knowledgeable about should I apply."
No matter how he does it, though, there's no denying that the Bowie we get on this album is different from the Bowie of old. This time, there's no shtick to sell, no image to hide behind; what we're getting are his real feelings, his true self. And if that self arrives bearing songs about image-mongering Benetton ads, well, nobody appreciates the irony of the times better than he does.
"I do find that the microcosm of what is me does seem to reflect an awful lot of what seems to be happening around me socially," he says. "I think maybe my antennae pick up the Zeitgeist -- oh dear, that dates me. I haven't heard that word in years! Say 'the atmosphere of our times.' But it also seems to be something that I seem to push myself through anyway."
Still, there are limits to what he'll push himself through, which is one reason he has no plans to tour behind this album. "I don't actually see when I'll be touring again," he says. "I certainly have never made any promise to myself not to tour again or anything. But I don't actually find it within me to want to do it for the next while."
Why not? "I have to say that the major reason is, is that my marriage is new, and we want to start a family of our own. I must be careful on obsessing on my work again in quite such the same way. A new experience for me is trying to find a balance between my work and my private life.
"I really want to put some time in this time around," he adds, laughing. "I had every reason in the world to tour last time."