The Buddha Of Suburbia

David Bowie

BMG International, 1993

REVIEW BY: Ben McVicker


1993’s The Buddha Of Suburbia, an oft-forgotten album in David Bowie’s discography, was my uncharacteristic introduction to this most eclectic of songwriters. Having taken a liking to the reflective and melancholic ballad “Strangers When We Meet,” I ended up happening upon a 2007 reissue of this album before I laid eyes upon Heathen – a better-known effort that featured the same track. As chance would have it, the album grew on me quickly and possessed an enduring quality that I had not found on Bowie’s more popular material.  

This album remains one of the black sheep of my music collection, an odd fusion of early ‘90s electronica and perhaps ambient jazz, with a touch of pop sensibility for good measure. Very difficult to categorize. It’s a rare disc that you can listen to in a single go without having to skip throwaway tracks. Often categorized as a soundtrack due to the album’s roots in some work that Bowie did for a British television series, the album is much more than that. A soundtrack generally loses something in the absence of moving pictures, whereas The Buddha Of Suburbia easily stands on its own two feet as a cohesive and artful listening experience.

Things kick off with the title track, which features a whole array of sounds: digital effects, orchestral layerings, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Bowie’s distinctive vocal delivery, and chiming guitar lines. For being an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink number, it’s remarkably cohesive, piquing listeners’ interests with its mélange of sounds and selective pop moments.

“Sex And The Church” is quite a departure from the opening number. A six-and-a-half minute experiment with electronica, it features Bowie delivering a spoken-word lyric through a distorted mic to the tune of a hypnotic drum loop and the occasional sax line. His delivery of the minimalist chorus (literally, the phrase “Sex... and the Church,” repeated over and over) is closer to percussive than melodic in effect, blending well with overall vibe of the song.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Buddha Of Suburbia is how well everything flows. The first pair of songs is worlds apart in style, yet somehow they sound great in succession. This rule holds true for the remainder of the album as well, including a pair of instrumentals that are worlds apart in themselves. “South Horizon” is a delightful affair, featuring jazzy and meandering piano lines atop some grooving percussion and light digital effects. “Mysteries,” in contrast, is a quiet, minimalist effort, making use of scattered single-note keyboard lines in an atmospheric soundscape. 

A quartet of vocal numbers follows, the strongest of them being the aforementioned “Strangers When We Meet.” It’s easily the best vocal to be found on the album, and Bowie’s lyrics are a real treat: “Cold tired fingers / Tapping out your memories / Halfway sadness / Dazzled by the new / Your embrace was all that I feared... / I’m so thankful / That we’re strangers when we meet.” He does an excellent job of capturing the mixed emotions one can experience upon being reacquainted with an old friend after traveling your respective and diverging paths in life. That Bowie can infuse this song with a feeling of bittersweet optimism is a tribute to his skill as a songwriter.

While one could file some nagging criticisms about The Buddha of Suburbia, such as the instrumentals not standing up on their own, or the surrounding vocal cuts of  “Bleed Like A Craze, Dad” and “Dead Against It” not being up to par with “Strangers...” and the title track, these are petty observations. As a soundtrack and as a concept album, The Buddha Of Suburbia flows with a degree of consistency that is uncommon in such efforts, and it is a highly enjoyable listen.

Rating: A-

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© 2008 Ben McVicker and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of BMG International, and is used for informational purposes only.