As we hit the anniversary of the Starman’s death there will no doubt be a deluge of tributes, retrospectives and thought pieces related to his enviable collection of material. As a memorial to one of the greatest artists of this generation GIGsoup are highlighting his penchant for reinvention over the often over-looked 90’s period – where there were soundtracks, collaborations and the artists take on a future world. Over the next few days GIGsoup writers pick their personal 90’s Bowie favourite and tell us why, even in a decade of dance, Britpop and boybands, the artist led the way in popular music.
1993’s ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ found David Bowie at a very strange place in his career. Throughout the last two decades, he had been one of the mainstays of popular music. In the 70s he was always at the cutting edge and, while he certainly released some excellent work during the ’80’s, he did sink into what he would later refer to as his “Phil Collins years” – a time of huge commercial success but artistic and critical crisis.
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Bowie spend the early part of the 90s trying to work his way out of this phase – first came his hard rock project ‘Tin Machine’ – a well meaning blunder – and the misguided ‘Black Tie White Noise’. You certainly couldn’t accuse Bowie of not trying to innovate, but the decade didn’t start all too well for him. ‘Buddha of Suburbia’, then, stands as a very important record in his career. It was the first of his albums, since 1980’s ‘Scary Monsters and Super Creeps’, to attempt something truly original and actually to get it right. ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ was the sound of an artist famed for being a changeling; once again shifting and evolving. It was, in short, the rebirth of David Bowie the innovator.
Ostensibly the soundtrack for a BBC drama of the same name, in reality only the title track of ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ actually made it to the TV show, the rest was offered to the Beeb but declined. It’s not really surprising; a lot of ‘Buddha…’ is quite strange and not particularly accessible. Many of Bowie’s past excursions into avant-garde were tempered with a populist sentiment – not so here – this is an album you need to work at for a while.
There’s certainly some more traditional fare on the album; the opening title track is a fairly straight-ahead mid-tempo ballad; ‘Strangers When We Meet’ is another heartstring tugger (later reworked on his ’90’s opus, ‘1.Outside’) but much of the album is made of stranger stuff. ‘Sex And The Church’ is a gem; unashamedly weird and quite unlike any other song that Bowie wrote; it sees him delivering a monologue, of sorts, through a heavy vocoder and a relentless, danceable electro backbeat. It’s endearingly eccentric and a lot a fun.
‘South Horizon’ is funky electro-jazz workout, fully instrumental for its five and a half minute runtime. It’s a joy to hear such a unique instrumental on a Bowie album again after so long in the pop wilderness. Indeed, though stylistically quite different, it’s hard not to think of Bowie and Brian Eno’s collaborative work on the instrumental portions of ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’. Perhaps even more evocative of that work is the dreamy reverie of ‘The Mysteries’, a 7 minute adventure in ambient territory, full of gorgeous washes of droning synth and reverb-drenched piano. It’s really not hard to see why the BBC turned down all but the comparatively traditional title track; the majority of this album is a world away from drama soundtrack material – and it’s all the better for it.
It’s telling, actually, that the moments that elevate ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ from good to great are its experimental ones. Whilst moments such as the title track and ‘Strangers When We Meet’ are much better than most of his preceding work for the past decade or so, it’s the abstract, freeform pieces that really make this record.
Despite barely even being a soundtrack album, the label dismissed it as such and put very little effort into the albums promotion; feeling that a soundtrack album by an artist that most considered past his best would be a flop. Very unfortunately, they were right. The album was a commercial failure and even today remains one of very few genuinely well hidden albums in Bowie‘s illustrious career. Perhaps with better marketing, the album could have sold a few more copies; but it was never an album fated to achieve big commercial success.
‘Buddha Of Suburbia’ is a fascinating and pivotal album in David Bowie‘s career. It’s an album that had to be made – it was the record that allowed Bowie to once again re-invent himself; this time moving back towards to a spirit of adventure that made him so vital in the first place. He would go on to create better and better-known albums in the second half on the ’90’s; but ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ is still a wonderfully unique and under-appreciated entry into the Bowie oeuvre.