Friday, April 10, 2009

David Bowie - The Buddha Of Suburbia (1993)

Common journalistic perception implies that David Bowie returned to form for a career renaissance with 1993's Black Tie White Noise. The record has much to speak in it's favor: Bowie had turned over a new leaf, marrying Iman, and ditching his late-80's image for a more refined Sinatra-esque suit and hat. What's more, the record featured a Scott Walker cover, a scorching single in "Jump They Say", and more solid original material than you could shake a stick at. After the 1-2 disappointment punch of Tonight and Never Let Me Down, it was as though the real Bowie had returned from hiatus, and critics breathed a collective sigh of relief.

There's no doubt that following the record, the "real" Bowie would in fact have returned, and headed down a path through the 90's and 2000's that largely restored his artistic integrity. The real question is, how much of that return was truly embodied in Black Tie, White Noise? While the record is certainly a step up from its predecessors, it's not exactly an experimental masterpiece either. The record was produced by Nile Rodgers (who also helmed Let's Dance), and despite it's higher quality, is still an unquestionable stab at mainstream popularity. From the awkward rapping on the title track, to the overly poppy production that pervades the album, drawing a clear line from that record to Bowie's late 90's output is difficult, to say the least. In fact, Bowie's true return lies in a record released the same year to little fanfare: The Buddha Of Surburbia.

Marketed as the "soundtrack" to a BBC teledrama, The Buddha Of Suburbia is anything but. In fact, it's a full fledged Bowie record, with only one song actually appearing on television. The rest of the record is an abstract, experimental, but also highly accessible masterpiece. Recorded in only six days in Montreaux, Switzerland, the record features only two primary musicians: Bowie and multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay. They're joined briefly by Bowie alumnus Mike Garson, along with an artist named 3D Echo and a barely-discernable guitar performance by Lenny Kravitz for an alternate take of the title track. The bottom line is that it was the first time in a long time that Bowie seemed comfortable being Bowie.

The record was a throwback to Bowie's 70's output in so many ways, that it almost seems as though it could be a close cousin to the oft-worshipped Berlin trilogy. Much like Low and "Heroes", the album features a compelling blend of accessible rock music and ambient soundscapes. Unlike those records, the songs are interspersed through the album, which in many ways makes for a more steady and logical flow to the album's progression. The ambient tracks ("The Mysteries", "Ian Fish UK Heir") are pure Eno-era Bowie, while the more straight ahead rock songs are a true return to form. Appearing to incorporate Bowie's use of the "cut up" technique, they feature wonderfully abstract and emotive lyrics. What's more, many of them (Specifically "Buddha Of Suburbia", "Bleed Like A Craze, Dad", "Dead Against It", and "Strangers When We Meet") are so damn accessible that it's mind boggling a record company wasn't scrambling to release them as singles.

In short, the record is fantastic. It's classic Bowie, and the fact that it was never recognized as such is a travesty. It was so neglected that it went out of print for a number of years, a fact that was thankfully remedied with a reissue in 2007. It's difficult to say why, exactly, the record is so overlooked. It has all the hallmarks of a great Bowie record, and was without a doubt what inspired him to return to his roots later in the decade. Perhaps it's that the pop-saturated market of 1993 wasn't ready for such a recording, or perhaps it's that many had lost faith in Bowie's ability to release a fantastic record. Whatever the case, its disappearance into the ether borders on criminal. If you're even a sometimes-fan of Bowie's late 70's material, this record deserves a place in your collection - you won't regret it.

mp3: David Bowie - Dead Against It