One of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write, this one -- because it’s quite difficult to assess this as a complete work, despite Bowie’s clear desire that we do so (and it doesn’t help that Bowie remains one of the most complicated rock stars in the universe). One part notebook for sketching out the future, one part playground, one part a change of scene, the best place (I think) to start judging this diverse and messy work is to look at where it fits into his discography.
The early 90s were, to be blunt, an incredibly frustrating time for Bowie. He had finally tasted the huge and lucrative chart-topping success that had eluded him all his career (being a huge influence on at least two generations of musicians doesn’t pay the bills, baby) with his mid-80s albums, starting with Let’s Dance in 1983, the startlingly slick and radio-friendly album that turned its back on the remarkable late-70s/early-80s run of challenging, fabulous Fripp/Eno-esque run of albums. Bowie had scored an international #1 with “Ashes to Ashes” from 1980’s Scary Monsters , he was on Broadway as the Elephant Man , and film offers were pouring in. Suddenly, he was single, off drugs, and everything he touched was turning to gold, and he was determined to capitalise on (and monetise) that success.
But his brush with the mainstream didn’t last long; the follow-up album Tonight , despite having flashes of brilliance, was really only a stretched-out EP and didn’t match Let’s Dance’s numbers; his pet film project Absolute Beginners bombed, and a (some say desperate) turn to harder rock with 1987’s Never Let Me Down found Bowie going through the motions and relying on cliche (though I’m quite fond of the second track, “Time Will Crawl”).
Later that same year, Bowie toured the Never Let Me Down album with the hugely expensive and overproduced Glass Spider stadium tour, which ran him into legal trouble on at least two occasions. True to form, he ditched the bombast right after that and became the frontman for a (vanity) group, Tin Machine . That really, basically, went nowhere (after some modest initial success). After disbanding the group, he tried to recreate the success of Let’s Dance by re-hiring Nile Rodgers and going for a more “urban” sound on 1992's Black Tie White Noise . It was a start, and moderately successful, but that just wasn’t good enough for our Mr Bowie anymore.
So it was back to the drawing board, but this time with a twist: the drawing board would be made public in the form of this album, a new work fostered by the most ordinary of “day jobs,” knocking out a soundtrack of incidental music for a BBC TV play called “The Buddha of Suburbia .” Bowie, in his liner notes, admits that the “motif driven small pieces” of music made for that project don’t actually appear on this 1993 namesake album (apart from the title track, which is pure 90s-era Bowie right down to the sax solos), but instead became the jumping-off point for a written list of influences and memories that he tried to re-work into his next “reinvention.”
At first, this just doesn’t seem to be working: his collaborator on this project, Erdal Kizilcay, whips up some perfectly functional sounds and strong arrangements, but the title track and “Sex and the Church” both fail to gel. The former attacks with his quixotic lyrics without a strong musical counterpunch, just like most of Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and the latter is an admitted riff on provocative words without connection. These are followed with “South Horizon,” best described as “failed jazz.” Next up is another instrumental/ambient flirtation of the sort Bowie’s thrown around once in a while since at least Low called “The Mysteries,” and while enjoyable, brings what little schizophrenic energy the album had managed to build up to a flying stop. As a piece by itself, it’s worthwhile, particularly in league with other such instrumentals (and Bowie did exactly this in 1999 with the album All Saints , gathering “The Mysteries” and other soulmates like “Crystal Japan” in one convenient place).
“Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” picks up exactly where Black Tie, White Noise left off, with lots of faux-Rodgers touches but also pointing out a path to where he was headed. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the lyrics don’t use the dreaded “cut-up” Burroughs lyric methodology (which, truth be told, only works occasionally). The song has something to do with hanging with the UK’s most notorious gangsters, and introducing them to his dad, and perhaps that wasn’t a good idea. Nice and weird, just how you like your mid-school Bowie, and precisely the sound he was looking for in his next album, 1995’s Outside.Suddenly, though, a breakthrough: taking bits from all of his 80s music (even Labyrinth !) and blending it with chasers of Eno, Icehouse and Roxy Music, he comes up a cropper with “Strangers When We Meet,” a song so good he recorded it again for Outside. It’s such a startling change to the zig-zags of the record thus far that a dedicated fan listening on headphones, waiting patiently for some solid Bowie, might shed a tear of joy on hearing this obvious reconnection to his muse. The next track, the Kirsty MacColl -esque “Dead Against It,” only reinforces this notion: by gum, the Thin White Duke of Pop is back!
“Strangers When We Meet” by David Bowie from The Buddha of Suburbia
The hat trick is completed with the rather different (but very foretelling) “Untitled No. 1,” the sound of which would turn up on Earthling and “hours ...” in later years. These three songs lay out the blueprint for how Bowie would continue to work up to his forced (and hopefully temporary) retirement from studio and touring performances in 2005 following a “minor” heart attack.
All too soon, however, Bowie brings down the curtain on this resurrection with another ambient instrumental entitled “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir,” which drones on too long (at 6:27) but does emphasise guitar more than most of his instrumentals (and I like the “fake vinyl fuzz” used throughout). The finalé of the album is a alternate version of the title track again (making for very obvious bookends) with a slightly harder-rock edge supplied by Lenny Kravitz (who, thankfully, does not sing). It’s not the best song on the album, and hobbled by its cut-up lyric style, so repeating it doesn’t do the listeners any favours. It’s not a bad effort, but seems to say at the end of the day that all Bowie’s learned is that a bit more crunchy guitar laid over his usual stuff is all that’s needed.
Happily, that wasn’t the takeaway from Buddha of Suburbia for Bowie, and the subsequent albums -- while no longer the trendsetting documents he once spit out like pronouncements on his sexuality -- were strong and satisfying enough to win back his old fans and earn him some new ones, decorated with gems of the brilliance we’ve come to rely on. As he slides into old age, Bowie has pulled off perhaps the greatest trick of all -- dragging himself back from the edge of embarrassment, away from the cliff of self-parody. If he occasionally borrows from his disciples (and himself), well, there’s worse ways to go gently into that good night.
Two things I’ve learned from this album is that the man is unquestionably more than just a talented trendspotter, he works really hard to match his output to his mental image of what he wants to do, and secondly that it’s unwise to write his career’s epitaph even yet -- there might just be a fifth act to this drama to come. After all, he hasn't been a Doctor Who or James Bond villain ... yet ...