Sex and the Church

zurich 93

Sex and the Church.

Sex I loved; like drugs, it was play, headiness. I’d grown up with lads who taught me that sex was disgusting. It was smells, smut, embarrassment and horse laughs.

The Buddha of Suburbia.

An open marriage of Prince’s The Black Album and Laurie Anderson, “Sex and the Church” is an intriguing, if far overlong, Bowie studio experiment. As Anderson did on “O Superman” (which Bowie later covered live), Bowie spoke his lines through a vocoder and then treated the vocal track, speeding it up and down at times. The backing track is a demonstration manual of Mountain Studios’ inventory of drum machines, keyboards and sequencers, and there’s enough space in the six-minutes-plus of playing time for a Bowie saxophone solo (later in the track Bowie offers a fat Eighties sax hook, as if he’d been listening to Sade or Michael Bolton records) and for Erdal Kizilcay to show off his chops on organ, trumpet and bass. As with “South Horizon,” weak beats hobble the track, while its lackadaisical sense of development doesn’t make time pass any swifter.

Bowie’s lyric took a cue from the struggles of Buddha of Suburbia‘s lead character, Karim, who goes through the book (and series) sleeping with whoever he can, male or female. A second-generation Indian immigrant, Karim is irreligious, unburdened by any sense of morality or custom, but the spiritual emptiness he suffers at times suggests that the “classless” bed-hopping of Seventies London was a culture unable to sustain itself. Hanif Kureishi’s next novel, The Black Album, delved into one unforeseen response to this: the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Nineties London as a means for some children of immigrants to regain a sense of purpose.

There’s nothing that nuanced in Bowie’s lyric, which is an arid musing on sexual freedom and spiritual responsibility, with the singer eventually coming to a happy humanist conclusion: Give me the freedom of spirit/And the joys of the flesh/And sex. Nice work if you can get it. Bowie closed out “Sex and the Church” with a callback to glam (the rave-up ending of “Jean Genie”) and some moans, but the whole production had a cold, disassociated feel, the sound of a virtual reality sex program punched up by a Philip K. Dick character.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux.

Top: Stefan Bucher, “Street Parade #2,” Zurich, August 1993.

29 Responses to Sex and the Church

  1. audiophd says:

    Always liked this one for some reason, though it could definitely stand to lose a minute or two.

  2. Diamond Duke says:

    Hmmmmmmm…It’s okay, I suppose. Like so much of The Buddha Of Suburbia album, it manages to be interesting without necessarily being viscerally engaging. It’s got a cool beat, though… πŸ˜‰

  3. i like it’s detachment…but i like your fair and critical thinking even more.

  4. Maj says:

    Philip K. Dick is a good association. I do like this song enough so I can have it playing as background music when I write or do housework but it’s not something I choose to ever *listen* to. I still like it better than South Horizon though.

  5. postpunkmonk says:

    I always thought this was not just a nod to Laurie Anderson but a revisiting of Kraftwerk; TEE period. When I saw Bowie at the Chili Pepper in Ft. Lauderdale on the Earthling/Bowie Bonds tour [2nd night] and he performed “O Superman,” you could have knocked me over with a feather!

    I’m enjoying your analysis of “Buddha of Suburbia” since it is my favorite Bowie album, post “Scary Monsters.” I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about “Untitled No. 1.”

  6. Pierre says:

    Always liked this track, again anything on this album sounded so unlikely what he had been doing for last 10 years, I couldn’t helped but to be enthralled by the melancholic aura of the songs.

  7. david says:

    I think its Bowie’s most successful fusion of the kind of dance music of the period, married with the android detachment of his Berlin years. I also think that the lyrics deserve a little more appraisal than being merely an accompaniment to the novels protagonist, particularly given Bowie’s lyrical past with sex as a way of connecting with God on a spiritual level against the disconnect of the physical, but each to his own.

  8. Patrick says:

    My first hearing will be my last on this particular track. Sorry, guys but on tracks so far, while not bad, BOS isn’t quite turning into the lost masterpiece some had suggested. I remain to be convinced. This track is DB on autopilot in more ways than one.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Hang in there Patrick. I personally think it’s the lyrical tracks which appeal the most on this album. The instrumental tracks are all a bit ho-hum. And while there is a lyric of sorts on this one, I tend to lump it in with the instrumentals…

    • Pierre says:

      you better butcher Reality when its turn comes around πŸ˜‰

  9. princeasbo says:

    It looks like Scott Walker’s pleas have been answered:
    Though Chris might want to check out the source, it looks distinctly dodgy. πŸ˜‰

  10. MC says:

    Now this is one song that pretty much goes nowhere for me, but it has an interesting texture. For me, BOS has what all great albums have: a groove, a throughline that makes you want to listen to it from start to finish, even when the weaker tracks are on. It’s something that DB’s other 90’s albums lack, Outside included. The latter in particular has a lot of great music on it, with some songs right up there with Bowie’s finest, and then you’ll hit a patch that’ll send you straight for the skip button – ideal for cherry picking for mixtapes!

    • postpunkmonk says:

      MC you said a mouthful! Listen to almost third of the songs in a singular fashion and the results are very impressive. Unfortunately, it’s the whole that lets the project down. So much so that the album is rendered unlistenable for me.

  11. Frankie says:

    “….the sound of a virtual reality sex program punched up by a Philip K. Dick character.” Ha ha ha ha ha. That one really made me laugh. Nice touch! On the whole this is a favorite Bowie album for me, though a tad short in length when considering the last track is a reprise, albeit with Lenny Kravitz on guitar.. And for some reason, perhaps its the production, Kizilcay’s performance doesn’t come across quite as Casio as on NLMD for example.

  12. Frankie says:

    Nothing wrong with Casio organs. My personal fave is the small Casiotone Mt-68 “electronic musical instrument” It’s here, on my desk, I’ve used it on many of my recordings, and also enjoyed by Renaldo and The Loaf and The Residents.

  13. David L says:

    This one is a show stopper for me. There’s an immediacy, it demands your attention, something restless churning under the beat, and the sense that bowies really making music that means somehting to him again. And there’s a menace, more powerful than any of the overwrought posturing on tin machine, a preview of the disturbing “outside” which went too far with it, I think. I often feel that Bowie’s songs go on past their most advantageous ending point but not this one. It’s a groove and the length feels right.

    • algeriatouchshriek says:

      I have not contributed for a while, so return to make a regular obsessive observation. An edit of Sex & The Church would have made a strong second single from BOS. Given that the lead single was a flop and the album got zero promotion, another stab at chart success might have helped sales. And as David L notes above this track – possibly above all others on the album – has an immediacy and attention grabbing element.

  14. Chris, a humble critique, if I may. It seems you continue to have issues with the idea of space in songwriting. You admitted as much in “The Mysteries” review.

    I would argue there’s nothing wrong with the minimalist lyrical approach in “Sex and the Church” when you consider the frame of mind the composers chose to employ when entering into this project: Even though it may not have ended this way, Bowie and Kizilcay were certainly writing for film when the “Buddha” sessions began. With “Sex and the Church, they allow the listeners to build images, both from the film and – more importantly – from their own experience.

    Consider how the sparse vocals are often placed immediately before a subtle musical shift in the song, thus creating an emotional ramp for us to jump right after Bowie’s subtle suggestions: “Give me the freedom of spirit… And the joys of the flesh… And sex… Sex… Sex (note the rising inflection before falling)… and the church.” Then a throbbing organ riff restarts. The mind wanders.

    And let me tell you, as a college student who grew up protestant, this technique did nothing but fuel questions while Bowie’s sax teased: “What have I been fed?” “What is so wrong about touch?” “Can my desire for the physical and sacred go hand in hand?” “If not, what does that say about me?”

    Subtraction here is evocative. Effective.

    And if you don’t like the technique employed here, you need to ask your critical mind: Why does this work so much better in a similarly sparse track like “V-2 Schneider” or “Subterraneans?”

  15. The Hunt Sales & Tin Machine Memorialist... de Molay says:

    This album…, seems like an OS; it’s like standing in the backroom… the sound’s not weak but something like far away; kind of cool thing, calm for lazy people

  16. Basit says:

    Actually it was horrible i did not liked his album…

  17. crayontocrayon says:

    As others have mentioned this track has a good groove to it. In the context of the album I don’t have an issue with the length, the endless repetition of the title serves the song well. I find it interesting that ‘Sex’ gets more repeats that ‘the church’, the former often taking the place where you would expect the latter to appear. For me this suggests that Sex has a overwhelming power, the author values and wants the church, but it cannot compete with the cold allure of sex. And it is cold, it isn’t love and the church.

  18. D says:

    I like the decent to the lower note when he says “and the church” the second time in each verse. He says it in a way that suggests “hey, it seems like these things can’t really be reconciled… oh well!” It’s so detached and cold in that wonderful Laurie Anderson style.

  19. ramonaAstone says:

    Another point that should be made is that this song is really not intended to be listened to quietly while you sit at your desk – in fact, I would argue that that’s quite an inappropriate and creepy environment to do so!
    This is for those seedy underground sex clubs, as some commentators have said it’s evocative and SEXY in a selfish, detached way. This is one for the getting high and having sex with a stranger while thinking about yourself and God.
    There’s a fun line between cerebral and visceral – I think we expect too much of the former with Bowie, when he had always toed that line with calculated grace and a calculated smirk πŸ˜‰

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