Review Summary: Screaming along in South London
The news of an artist's passing, especially one with as sprawling a discography as Bowie's, can prompt a period of reevaluation and belated exploration; no doubt this soundtrack from '93 has been hiding at the bottom of many a fan's 'to do' list and would appear a prime candidate for posthumous reappraisal. This album is often held up as the moment Bowie turned his back on the commercial approach he'd first embraced at the beginning of the 80's and can be seen as a bridge between the predominantly lumpen 'Black Tie White Noise' and the Eno assisted 'Blade Runner-noir' near classic 'Outside'. If Bowie could ever be accused of being anything close to boring it was on the directionless 'Black Tie White Noise', a release that captured the man sounding uncharacteristically listless; here was an artist in desperate need of a new muse to escape the pressures of releasing yet another traditional album carrying the weight of the Bowie name. It's little wonder the chance to produce music to accompany an offbeat and mildly subversive drama appealed as it offered an opportunity to tinker outside of the usual intense critical glare whilst also offering up a readymade artistic landscape beyond his regular sphere of influences in which to operate.
'The Buddha of Suburbia' by Hanif Kureishi tells the coming of age story of a 17 year old mixed-race English boy who goes through a period of intense spiritual and sexual self discovery in the 1970's; it isn't much of a stretch to see how the themes of prejudice, bisexuality, East and West culture clash and the suburban landscape of 'saarf London' appealed to Bowie. What's interesting here isn't that the project attracted David in the first place but just how much it clearly inspired him once he'd started working on it. This album isn't in fact the actual soundtrack he recorded to accompany the BBC show but rather a set of tracks subsequently recorded to expand on the styles and ideas presented in the original score. Clearly the geography of this world, a place David knew so well, was somewhere he wanted to get lost in a little deeper than his original remit strictly demanded.
The fact that these compositions were 'inspired by' the TV show rather than recorded specifically as soundtrack music certainly strengthens this album's standing as a legitimate Bowie solo album and specifically only the one track remains unaltered from the original unreleased soundtrack, that of course being the all important and dominant titular track. It's an essential Bowie anthem that appropriately marks the return of the barrow boy South London singing accent last heard regularly on 'Hunky Dory', the lyrics layering tongue in cheek innuendos on top of each other reaching a head with the impassioned cry of 'down on my knees in suburbia!'. The sauciness continues on the second cut 'Sex and the Church', a dance pop number that strongly hints that Bowie had likely been listening to the Pet Shop Boys in advance of the 'Hallo Spaceboy' collaboration two years later.
This release is more explicitly linked with it's successor 'Outside' through the seeped-in-nostalgia ballad 'Strangers When We Meet' appearing in a different guise on both albums. The version included here sports a fussier arrangement and plays the part of a mid album driver whereas the better known 'Outside' take adopts the role of palette cleansing curtain closer; which you prefer will most likely boil down to your preference for either the 'Heroes'-y guitar licks of the former or tasteful piano patter of the latter. 'Bleed Like a Craze, Dad' is another highlight with more mockney vocals spouting repetitive cut-up lyrics that name drop the Krays over 'Lodger' throwback riffs. 'Untitled No.1' is more intriguing still, a warm richly multi-layered mix of ambient tones with Bowie repeatedly cooing 'Sleepy Kapoor' like a mantra before asking us to 'fill the cup with our sleepy souls'. The instrumentals that account for three of the songs here are evocative and uniformly excellent, in particular 'South Horizon' stands out through prominently featuring Mike Garson on piano and it serves as a precursor to his many show stealing contributions on 'Outside'; his jazzy explorations here are tellingly interrupted at the 2:30 mark with the introduction of an unexpected robotic sci-fi sample and accompanying drumbeat.
Sometimes it's our greatest strength that we end up neglecting and in Bowie's case there's a suspicion the instincts that served him so well in the 70's had been left to grow blunt in the 80's; 'The Buddha of Suburbia' at times feels like a process of sharpening those instincts again, reawakening the creative fires that had been burning low for nigh on a decade. Of course it goes without saying that this release was never intended to be held up against Bowie's grand artistic statements of the 70's and must instead be judged on its own unique intentions and merits. As such 'The Buddha of Suburbia' should be respected as a quietly impressive 'lost' work, one that with the gift of hindsight can be remembered as acting as herald to Bowie's final artistic chapter. The great man himself was quoted as saying that the album never stood a chance commercially as it 'only got one review...a good one as it happens'; well here rather belatedly is another one of those David. RIP.