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Week 61 | The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)

This is as good a candidate as any for being the great lost Bowie album, though for the past quarter century it has been hiding in plain sight.  Ostensibly a soundtrack, this instrumental-heavy collection is more inspired by a British show of the same name than an actual soundtrack.  Or so I understand— I have never actually seen the show.  But the original version of the album cover featured an image from the show, rather than Bowie.  It wasn’t released in the United States until 1995, two years after its British release (I acquired a British copy earlier than its US release).  And to confuse things further about what this album is, one of the album’s featured songs, “Strangers When We Meet,” was also featured (in my opinion, oddly) on another Bowie album, “1. Outside.”  The video for that song was in the motif Bowie was using in promoting “1. Outside,” yet the style, at least to my ears, seems more in fitting with “Buddha.”

So what is “Buddha?”  It is a complete album of original music by David Bowie.  The music is mostly out of sync with most of what else Bowie was doing in the mid-1990s— where albums like the two Tin Machine albums, “1. Outside” and “Earthling,” are loud and hard, this one is quiet and soft.  Where “Black Tie White Noise” is eclectic but pop-oriented, this one flows relatively seamlessly from song to song, so much so that I have some difficulty distinguishing between some of the songs, and as a whole the style is closer to ambient music than pop.  (Though the song, “Pallas Athena” sounds more like it would be at home on “Buddha” than “Black Tie”).  

Despite its stealth nature, “Buddha” is pretty good.  It is comforting background music.  To the extent its very existence is something of a surprise, it is a pleasant surprise.  “Soft,” “quiet,” “comforting,” “pleasant”… these are not words normally associated with Bowie music, so in that sense it is another can he of the chameleon’s colors.  It doesn’t feature songs I necessarily feel compelled to listen to again and again, however I can repeatedly have the album on while doing something else.  

In addition to “Strangers,” “Buddha” includes a few other noteworthy songs, including the title track, which also has a video and might be the only song that is truly part of the show’s actual soundtrack, the near-instrumental, “Sex and the Church,” which is sort of a cousin of “Pallas Athena,” as well as “Bleed Like a Craze, Dad,” which is pretty distinctive.  Most of the rest kind of blends together.  But again, that’s not as bad thing.  

While “Buddha” is nowhere near as good, or influential as “Low” and “Heroes,” I think it makes better use of instrumentals in that the distinctions are blurry between the actual instrumentals, some with few words (like “Sex and the Church”) and soft but fully-vocalized songs.  I don’t feel like, when, say “The Mysteries” comes on, I am anxious for it to end because I’m waiting for “Bleed Like a Craze, Dad,” unlike waiting to get through the instrumentals on the way to “The Secret Life of Arabia” on “Heroes.”  

“Buddha” was given a little bit of new life, at least in the United States, when it was finally issued in 1995 with a cover featuring Bowie.  In fact, it is the last Bowie album featuring a clear, seemingly unaltered photo of Bowie’s face (I’m not counting “…hours,” where the two images of Bowie’s face are from more of a distance).  But the album would subsequently go in and out of print and really was never promoted much (again, at least in the US).

What are some of the other contenders for “Great Lost Bowie album?”  Well there’s Bowie’s 1967 self-titled debut album, which isn’t very good and often isn’t included in reissues of his back catalogue.  There’s the terribly marketed and confusingly named “Tin Machine II.”  Then there’s the even more terribly marketed and named Tin Machine live album, “Oy Vey, Baby.”  Finally, there is the unreleased album, “Toy.”  Among that group, “Buddha” might not be the most obscure (“Toy” probably has that distinction considering it was never officially released), but there’s a good case to be made that its the best.  If not a staggering work of genius, it is a nice little surprise.  

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