Sunday, March 4, 2007
When the dust settles on the remarkable career of David Bowie I believe two things will become evident. The first being that this man is the most innovative and important artist of the rock era and secondly that he reached his artistic peak in, not in the 1970s, but in the 1990s.
Bowie's artistic disintegration in the eighties has been well documented in many publications and after reaching his nadir with the heartbreaking Never Let Me Down album Bowie would begin to formulate the most impressive artistic comeback in rock since Elvis in 68.
Bowie's first step towards redemption was the savage project he formulated with guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Tin Machine is typically made fun of these days but one listen to the first album clearly shows just how necessary that band was. Blasting away the eighties, with one of the most brutal albums by a major artist ever, Bowie buries every over-produced and under-written song he had spent the previous five years performing.
After the furious Tin Machine period where Bowie would successfully alienate the audience that had adopted him in 1980's he would re-enter the studio with none of than Let's Dance producer Nile Rodgers. At first it seemed like Bowie was stepping backwards but it soon became apparent that Bowie was attempting to recapture his voice by going head to head with one of the men whom he had originally lost it with. The talented Chic founder Rodgers would find Bowie to be a very different artist from the one whom had made Let's Dance the decade before. Bowie took full control and produced an album that was at times heavily flawed but always interesting. Black Tie White Noise would debut at number one in Britain and would contain a couple of tracks that could be counted among Bowie's best, including the terrifying Jump They Say, but it wasn't a masterpiece to rank among his finest work. Bowie was already quietly getting ready to deliver that.
1993 saw director Roger Michell approach Bowie with the idea to provide the soundtrack to a mini-series he was working on entitled The Buddha Of Suburbia, based on the novel by Hanif Kureishi concerning a young man attempting to come of age in 1970's England. The idea that Michell had was to originally use Bowie's work from the seventies but Bowie liked the story immensly and agreed to provide new material.
Recorded in Switzerland, The Buddha of Suburbia is the great lost David Bowie album. Out of print for years and the weakest seller in his catalogue, some hardcore Bowie fans don't even know about it. Yet it is in these ten tracks where he hear Bowie truly reclaiming his art and it would signal the trilogy of masterworks (Outside, Earthling and Hours) that he would produce in the years following its release.
The Buddha of Suburbia would see Bowie returning not just to the strong song writing of the early seventies but also the longer instrumentals that had populated Low and Heroes.
Harking back to early compositions like The Bewlay Bros. and All The Madman the title track of the album would become one of the greatest of all Bowie songs. A lovely and exciting song that would recall not only the early seventies but would also see Bowie tipping his hat to newer British bands he admired like Suede and The Stone Roses, it is one of the great 'British' songs Bowie has ever recorded. The line 'Elvis is English and climbs the hills' among others would mark this a Bowie's homecoming and within a few years he would take to performing in a Union Jack coat.
After the stunning title track the album switched gears completely into a six minute plus instrumental entitled Sex And The Church. The song is a weird mix of house and free jazz with Bowie providing some buried spoken word throughout. Nicholas Pegg, author of the indispensable The Complete David Bowie, would note that the song's conclusion would sneak bits of The Jean Genie in before suddenly ending.
South Horizon is reported to be Bowie's favorite on the album and it is a delicious instrumental that sounds like Roxy Music doing a Cecil Taylor song. Mike Garson's piano is at it's most experimental here and the song weaves a hypnotic six minute groove.
The seven minute track The Mysteries sees Bowie returning to the ambient like instrumentals that he cut with Eno for Low and Heroes. It is one of Bowie's best moments as an instrumentalist and it would pay tribute to an expiermental moment in popular music that I still don't think has topped.
Strangers When We Meet would provide the album its next great moment and would serve as one of the most perfect pop songs Bowie has ever delivered. A glorious five minute side that Brian Eno loved so much that he would have Bowie record a second version two years later to close their astonishing Outside album.
Dead Against It is the most frenetic song on the album and would be selected as the B-side to the title track single. Untitled #1 again has Bowie harking back to his work with Eno in the seventies. Lush, sweeping and lovingly rendered with a line, "It's clear that some things never change", that sums up the entire album.
The album would close with one final stunning ambient piece, Ian Fish U.K. Heir and a reprise of the title track featuring a solid, but unnecessary, Lenny Kravitz guitar solo.
The Buddha of Suburbia is an album that manages to do the near impossible task of looking back and forward at the same time. It also works as a perfect introduction to the massive scope of Bowie's career as it seemingly features something from every one of his musical persona's.
The album has had a strange release history. Originally a botched British only release that was incredibly released as a straight soundtrack and not a new Bowie album. It managed only to get to 87 on the British charts and quickly slipped out of print. It finally got a quiet American release in the mid 90's with a new cover and that version also fell quickly out of print. It remains the only Bowie album that is currently not in circulation. It is also one of Bowie's favorites of all of his own work and he would draw heavily on it for his All Saints instrumental album.
Bowie would soon, after recording Buddha, be back in the studio with Brian Eno for the audacious and already influential Outside album. He would continue to grow more and more confident throughout the 90's and this decade with a series of albums that I believe will hold up as well as his best work from the 70s.
Dave Thompson in his fine study of Bowie's career renaissance, Hallo Spaceboy, would note that Bowie is, "moving into what will unavoidably be described as the next phase of his career from a position not only of contentment, but also of unparalleled creative strength". That is correct and for anyone curious to hear the moment when Bowie truly regained his genius should seek out the most elusive of all of his work, the magnificent Buddha Of Suburbia.