Words are floated together with a dyslexia that is music itself—a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over words, to see just how little words can do.
Greil Marcus, on Bob Dylan’s “I’m Not There.“
One idea pulled another behind it, like conjurers’ handkerchiefs…I felt more solid myself, and not as if my mind were just a kind of cinema for myriad impressions and emotions to flicker through.
Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.
Bowie has called Buddha of Suburbia one of his favorite records. Maybe he said that as a bit of mischief, touting his most obscure record as one of his best, like a hipster connoisseur of his own work (and he was). But Buddha did seem to have resonance for Bowie; something about its creation had felt right with him.
One guess: Buddha finally got Bowie past something that had plagued him since 1987, which was the sour legacy of Never Let Me Down. Recall that Bowie originally felt he’d had a creative resurgence making that album, that he’d come back from the slough of Tonight in fighting trim. Then the record got panned as an all-time-low while its subsequent tour became a symbol of clueless excess. The press seemed to want Bowie to make a barefoot pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to atone for it. The blow to his confidence was staggering; he stumbled through half a decade. After NLMD, he fashioned an anti-“Bowie”-persona with Tin Machine, while he paced his “public” self through soulless exercises like the Sound + Vision tour. Even Black Tie White Noise, for which he was in happier spirits, found him undermining an alleged commercial comeback without much in the way of “art” songs to compensate.
On Buddha, he finally just seemed to let it all go. Maybe the process of the album’s creation, with Bowie thumbing through the past, letting 30 years of songs, memories and film clips flicker by as if in a child’s flipbook, gave him perspective enough to realize that the whole NLMD era would be a footnote. And he had nothing at stake on Buddha, which was just a weird spin-off of an obscure BBC soundtrack. He sat in his studio for a week and, using Erdal Kizilcay as a second pair of hands, fashioned whatever came into his head. Some of it was lovely, some of it was odd, but it was all of a piece, it held together; it was a humbly coherent record.
He closed the record with a thematic pair of songs. One, “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir” was an ebbing, a long subtraction, a song made out of what’s left when the tub’s drained (we’ll get to it next week). The other, “Untitled No. 1,” was the sound of the waters rushing in. It was so filled with melody, so dedicated to simple beauties, so easily and blissfully content as music, that it seems to have brokered a creative peace within Bowie. He came to rest here.
The title was a joke, Bowie naming a pop song as though it was a painting (reflecting a growing interest in contemporary art that, as we’ll soon see, would dominate his life in the mid-Nineties) and reflecting its lyric. The latter’s nonsensical, in the best sense of the word. It’s two verses and a chorus built of words chosen entirely for their flavor, their internal rhymes and rhythms. Lines extend in happy strings of consonance and assonance, cut to fit the generous spread of music that Bowie and Kizilcay laid out.
Bowie had his secret alphabets in “Subterraneans” and “Warszawa,” and he’d used cut-up to generate “random” lyrics since the early Seventies (and he was about to go whole-hog again on Outside, having upgraded to using cut-up software on a Mac Powerbook). But there’s a languid ease in his “non-lyric” here, in his long, slightly descending phrases of indeterminable English. Most of them begin with Bowie in his high register, dwelling on some lovely, opaque words, until he relaxes his grip and slides downward: In mornings she’s so regal that the [valley/curlew] sighs or Now we’re swimming rock [farther/by there] with [the doll/the idol] by our sides…
Or the indecipherable chorus hook: Shimi Kapoor? See Me Kapoor? City Kapo? There’s no right answer: it’s simply a giddy bubble of emotion, carried in a few swoops of sound. It’s reminiscent of how the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser phrased her songs, breaking lines down to syllables, turning common English into a gorgeous glossolalia (on paper, one line in “Lorelei” is “Lift up your toes /in my mouth,” but Fraser sings it like a Venusian would). Or Clare Torry on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky,” who, asked to improvise a vocal, decided instead to be an instrument.
There’s possibly a prayer buried in the second verse. The only line that Bowie sings distinctly is “it’s clear that some things never take.“
Still, to stay too long on a lyric that Bowie deliberately obscured is to neglect the track’s other pleasures. The little melodies that Bowie and Kizilcay keep dazzling you with, as if they’re adding more and more spinning plates upon a table: the rising scale motif that’s occasionally met by a groaning bass, like sunlight rousing a sleeper; the swirling gypsy synth figure in the breaks; the simple guitar solo, its player (Bowie?) opening with a line that entrances him so much that he just plays the last notes again and again; the jangling countermelody to the opening scale motif that soon molts into a trebly barrelhouse piano. Or in its most gonzo moment, when “Untitled” suddenly breaks down into a quasi-Indian dance track until the rhythm guitar, which has been the track’s quiet powerhouse from the start, noses in and closes things out.
And then there’s the bleating, neighing sound in the later choruses, which seems like Bowie’s parody of Marc Bolan’s singing voice (see “Black Country Rock”). Had the whole song been a secret requiem for Bolan, Bowie’s fellow traveler, one who had gone lost so many years before? (One can easily imagine Bolan singing something like “Sleepy Kapo.”) If so, it’s a tribute that more honors the living, the gracious hours that we have left to us. “Untitled” burgeons. There are a few times where it seemed as though Bowie could have stood up, then and there, and never recorded another note again: these tiny eddies of finality, in which everything in Bowie’s work and life reconciled for a moment before they broke apart again. This is one of them.
Recorded June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux.
Top to bottom: Juliette Binoche, Trois Coleurs: Bleu; Julie Delphy, Trois Couleurs: Blanc; Irene Jacob, Trois Couleurs: Rouge. (Kieslowski, 1993-1994).