The Buddha of Suburbia

This album has a weird reputation. Most people apparently don’t count it as one of his albums for some reason. Bowie did a song for this serial, and while he was at it he did eight other songs that weren’t in the drama. So it’s classified as a soundtrack, only got one review apparently, and it’s thought of as a lost album. I don’t know if people still think that way, but to make it even stranger, in 2003 Bowie called it his best album. It seems like a really Bowie thing to do to tell people your favorite album you’ve ever made is the one that no one knows about, and it’s kind of hilarious. Two of the review sites I read (CoS and Stereogum) trash talked it and ranked it at the very bottom. That is just wild, because this is one of his most eclectic albums up to this point. He has a discography that’s all over the place, but most of his albums keep a unifying sound throughout, and even if they’re influenced by a lot of different things, you can’t say that his albums are a grab bag of genres. Buddha of Suburbia is kind of that, Bowie expressing a lot of his different interests while at the same time pulling at nostalgia. In fact, this is the first time that Bowie has seemed comfortably himself (Pitchfork said that Diamond Dogs was the most “Bowie” album in a way because he played it all almost by himself, but look at the credits on this, and it’s even more of Bowie doing everything with help from his latest favorite collaborator Erdal Kizilcay).

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Since the 1980s, he was wanting to outrun and outdistance himself. Let’s Dance’s popularity proved to be too enticing, so he made Tonight. Tonight was so poorly-received, he made Never Let Me Down as his “I’m back” album. Never Let Me Down was even more of a critical failure, so he tried to be anything but himself because he had such a bad reputation. Black Tie White Noise was deliberately “different”. But on this album, he seems comfortable to experiment, make callbacks to his past work, and it has a really similar feel to The Next Day or Blackstar. In fact, there’s a huge jazz influence on this album just like Blackstar does. Looking at the album art gives you the same feeling listening to it does.

There’s so much experimentation on this album. You don’t have to go very far to hear it. After the title track, you’re immediately greeted by another of Bowie’s new friends, the drum machine, and Bowie singing through some watery vocal effects that are sped up and down as the song goes along. It’s the clearest point of reference for the segues on 1. Outside. Midway through the end of the song, there are pieces of jazz thrown in with organ, trumpets and sax playing around. It’s a great lead-in to South Horizon which is the jazziest and most experimental song. It sounds like essentially what Bowie probably does on his own before making it more digestible for an album, like an unfiltered look at Bowie playing around. It starts with a solid jazz rhythm and Mike Garson doing his thing over it, but the rhythm is broken up suddenly by a sample loop and a drum machine, like a trap thrown out to trip up Mike Garson who boldly keeps going. It’s almost like a fight. I like how Garson plays here, because it’s obviously him, and the direct connection to this is Aladdin Sane’s title track, but it’s held back a lot more than his solo on that song. There, the beauty was in how ferocious he got. Here, there’s more power in the notes he doesn’t play, and while it’s still wild, it’s tempered, and I think it works really well. At one point he just jams down some chords really hard as the drum beat seems to get louder.

It’s not the last time we hear Garson who comes back on Bleed Like a Craze, Dad. His presence is much smaller, relegated to playing some twinkling high notes here and there. The real hero of this song is the bass. Now we’re getting into my kind of territory, because Bowie’s sampling himself like he did (will do, whatever) later. It’s a killer baseline, and it’s the same one from Sister Midnight (and by default, Red Money). That’s what points out Bowie’s comfort on this album. Sure, he called back Changes on Black Tie White Noise, but this is the latter day Bowie that I love, appropriating himself and reworking his past to make new music. It’s wonderful.

I can’t remember, and I’m too lazy to double check, but if I argued that Black Tie White Noise was the start of latter day Bowie, I was wrong. That was the start of Bowie making a concerted effort to do something purposefully weird and different, like 1. Outside or Earthling (maybe I’m wrong, we’ll see when I get there!). Buddha of Suburbia is the first real old Bowie album, because he’s not doing something different for the sake of being different. He’s recycling himself like I mentioned before, and that’s what he did on Heathen, The Next Day, and Blackstar. Dead Against It is a song I’d lump as similar to those. It has a retro feel to it, both in the lyrics and the songwriting, and it sounds like an old person reflecting on their past in a way. I think this sense is what really powered Bowie at the end of his career, that timeless ability that is felt here.

He does it again on Untitled 1, singing incomprehensibly in the background in his Marc Bolan impression from Black Country Rock, but singing lyrics over that that run over each other until one stands out from the others, “it’s clear that some things never take”. It’s a delivery and feel that reminds me a lot of “I can’t give everything”. At the same time, while I’ve been listening to this, I’ve been wondering what exactly Erdal Kizilcay did. I think he was important in forming the rhythms on this album. My impression is that he and Bowie sat down like Bowie and Eno had once done, and they played around with sound (and vision [sorry]). This song is swarming with sounds. All of the songs are so textured, but this song has a lot going on both in the textures and the melodies, which makes the title especially funny, because you would expect one of the instrumentals to be untitled. Instead, the instrumentals get mysterious titles like The Mysteries and Ian Fish, UK Heir. Those are the two big ambient instrumentals on the album. I said before that Bowie proved that Eno didn’t write the ambient songs on Low and “Heroes”, because he did these without Eno, and they’re just as good as what they had done together fifteen years prior to this.

The Mysteries’ clear predecessor is Moss Garden. It’s seven minutes of pure feeling, even more heady than Moss Garden was, with piano and reversed acoustic guitar playing a few disconnected notes and portions of melodies here and there. I never saw the TV series Buddha of Suburbia, so I can’t comment on what this might represent in the way that I could on the Low and “Heroes” instrumentals, but I just like to close my eyes and soak in the mysteries. Ian Fish, UK Heir closes out the album, and its as formless as you can imagine, playing with static even as an instrument, and I think it takes what he and Eno had done before one step further (although obviously Eno has a richer career in ambient music, I mean one step further for Bowie), the melodies that do come through are lost in the quiet pulsing of the synths and the static. The guitar starts out trying to play the title track’s melody super low-key, but that’s abandoned as it’s eaten by the atmosphere. I love the sense of decay on this, like a distant future where people are dead and all that’s left is our homes and cities, but they’re being slowly retaken by nature.

The Buddha of Suburbia isn’t all moody instrumentals and freeform jazz/drum machine fusion though. The two most overtly typical pop songs are the title track and Strangers When We Meet. The title track is the only one that was used in the TV serial, and it’s a tour of nostalgia by the end, playing Space Oddity’s funky guitar riff before diving right into All the Madmen’s chorus. It doesn’t really fit on the album, but it’s a gem that doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it should. It’s just so confident and solid, with Bowie singing of nostalgic yearning and some of his absolute top lyrics. It feels even more poignant now, and listening to it now is making me cry so hard. Especially the way he holds the “when” almost uncertain if there will be another when and at the end as he hysterically declares himself “so thankful” and “head heel over”. Fuck.

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