David Bowie: The Buddha of Suburbia

[16 October 2007]

By Michael Keefe

I can’t think of another musical act whose discography offers greater highs or more abominable lows than David Bowie’s. From the stratospheric greatness of Ziggy Stardust, it’s a horrifying plunge into the lazy pap of 1987’s ironically titled Never Let Me Down. This broad range in the quality of releases can be frustrating for fans, but this same phenomenon is what makes every Bowie album worth investigating. Everything he puts out is at least interesting, even if what’s interesting about a given LP is how horrible it is.

Another reason that each of Bowie’s efforts offers at least a whiff of intrigue is that he’s the ultimate chameleon. Yeah, I know that you already know about this trait of his. He’s Ziggy one year and the Thin White Duke the next. These radical shifts in personae aside, though, Bowie almost always made fairly major changes to his approach from album to album. So much so, that, when he didn’t alter his tactics between releases, that is what became interesting. Again, this is true from the top to the bottom of his oeuvre. In many ways, 1977’s “Heroes” was just another take on Low. But they were both incredible albums; masterpieces, I’d say. On the other end of this spectrum, though, how could anyone issue something as marginal as 1989’s Tin Machine and then decide to follow that up two years later with the sonically similar (read: blah) Tin Machine II?

Not long after this ill-advised period in the recording history of David Bowie (1984 to 1991), he began to slowly climb his way back up off the mat (hey, the guy likes to box, so I’m allowed one pugilism cliché, right?). As he did in 1977, Bowie issued two CDs of new music in 1993. First came White Tie White Noise, an album of middling tunes encased in the stylistic trappings of the recently above-grounded electronic dance music scene. Later that same year, he became involved in composing music for a BBC television series called The Buddha of Suburbia. Confusingly, the album of the same name that resulted was not a soundtrack. No, this was a proper David Bowie release, with only its title track actually appearing in the TV show.

Still, Bowie did borrow and rework some of the themes he’d developed. Probably because of this, parts of The Buddha of Suburbia do feel like entries from a soundtrack. The record features three instrumental pieces: “South Horizon”, “The Mysterie”, and “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir”. Bowie hadn’t allowed himself to work in these kinds of open spaces since the ‘70s, and the looser structures pay off. This fine trio of tracks resembles the more abstract soundscapes of his 1977 albums’ flipsides. Thanks to guest pianist 3D Echo and the horn playing of both Bowie and multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay, “South Horizon” takes on jazzy textures and an improvisational flair. The others, meanwhile, more closely resemble David’s classic ambient collaborations with Brian Eno. Indeed, Bowie states in the liner notes that, during the making of this album, he was meditating on “dozens of personal 70’s memories”, many of which he lists; these include major sources like Pink Floyd and Eno, alongside more obscure musical reference points like the German group Neu and composer Harry Partch, plus cultural touchstones such as drugs and drag (oh, and his mum… awww).

These compelling forces aren’t as obviously present in the more standard rock/pop vocal tracks that comprise the rest of Buddha. What’s interesting about them, though, is that they pave the way for the melodic constructions of Bowie’s late ‘90s and early 2000s albums. In fact, this disc is probably the first of the modern era of David Bowie (1993 to 2003), during which he’s essentially become a quite good semi-mainstream alternative act. Sure, much of his next record, 1995’s Outside, would prove quite adventurous, but the framework for that material can be found here.

Most directly, this CD features an earlier version of “Strangers When We Meet”, one of his better and brighter pop songs from last decade (a song so nice he recorded it twice). The pulsating “Sex and the Church” alludes to the edgier realm of Outside, dispensing with verse-chorus structure and relying on cut-and-paste methods of lyric creation. “Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” also uses mixed-up text, but the mean and slinky music calls to mind the plastic funk of “Fame”.

A pair of tracks from later in the album never seem to latch on, though: “Dead Against It” and “Untitled No. 1” are fairly nondescript. Also, the CD ends pretty much where it began, with an only slightly different mix of the title song. It’s not listed as a bonus track, although I guess you could see it that way. Nonetheless, it contributes to the sensation that the latter portion of The Buddha of Suburbia doesn’t pay off enough to reward repeat listens. The overall result is merely a pretty good David Bowie album.

There are lots of these, really, so what’s the point of bringing to light yet another? Well, because it’s Bowie. This disc isn’t a must-have, but, for Bowiephiles, it’s a must-hear. Also, because of its incorrect labeling as a soundtrack, The Buddha of Suburbia has been largely overlooked. Hopefully, this album can finally assume its rightful place in the wildly erratic and ungainly discography of David Bowie. The Buddha of Suburbia isn’t a lost classic, but it’s definitely worth a listen. And, unlike the ten years’ worth of releases that came before, you might actually enjoy listening to this album.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/david-bowie-the-buddha-of-suburbia/