Review Summary: 1971's "Hunky Dory" spawned a number of hits, most notably the gorgeous "Life on Mars". David Bowie opted for a piano-based pop sound on this record, creating one of his strongest efforts to date. A classic.#107 On Rolling Stone's Top 500 albums of all time
When notorious hype-machine NME conducted its poll among contemporary musicians time (Radiohead, Placebo, U2, Suede and Marilyn Manson among others) to discover the most influential musician of our time, guess who came in first? David Robert Jones, sometimes known as The Thin White Duke, sometimes by his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, but far most commonly as David Bowie. From the time when he released his self-titled debut in 1967 to his 60th birthday two days ago, he has practically invented glam rock, jumpstarted Iggy Pop
and Lou Reed
’s career, collaborated with master of ambience Brian Eno
, and thus created the famous Berlin trilogy (“Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”), dabbled in folk, heavy rock, pop, electronica and soul, and created a myriad of great albums in the process. Despite the fact that his career spans almost forty years, most fans, critics and greatest hits compilations look to the seventies, the decade of glam rock, the Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie’s blue-eyed soul music, and the aforementioned “Berlin” trilogy; the decade where Bowie was at the cutting edge of popular music. Truly these were Bowie’s golden years, in which he released classic upon classic, with creativity more or less unmatched by any musician of 20th century. Having tackled both folk and rock on his first three albums, Bowie sought a different approach for his fourth. He told pianist Rick Wakeman that he wanted to make a more piano-oriented album, played him the songs that would come to make up “Hunky Dory” and asked him to play them on the piano, allowing him to write his own arrangements. The result was a catchy, beautiful, accessible and above all genius
record, that many Bowie fans still cite as their favourite.
The album encompasses several moods and sounds, while still being rooted in a piano pop sound. Many tracks here find their way to various compilations (Bowie has a lot of those), but none became immediate hits. “Life on Mars” only became a hit after the following album “Ziggy Stardust” was released and Bowie garnered increased attention. It soon became popular, and for good reason. The verses are driven by a beautiful piano, complimented by a dramatic classic arrangement as the unbelievably catchy chorus comes crashing in. The lyrics are completely non-sensical: “It’s on Amerika’s (sic) tortured brow / Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”
. I don’t think anyone, even Bowie himself can make any sense of them, but somehow it means something with Bowie’s passionate delivery. The song manages to be incredibly epic, but still brief at 3:54. A fitting, dramatic conclusion follows, as a descending violin run leads to a glorious crescendo of instruments and a gentle piano line trails off until the song finishes. “Life on Mars” is the best song Bowie ever wrote, and as such it can’t be considered anything but one of the greatest songs ever written.
The fact that the album has such a monumental song doesn’t detract from the rest of the songs though. The dramatic tension built up by “Life on Mars” is released by the vivacious “Kooks”, which is conversely followed by “Quicksand”, the albums melancholic highlight. It is perfectly placed, in between too unabashedly bubbly songs like “Fill Your Heart” (by Biff Rose and Paul Williams, the only non-original here”) and “Kooks” (a song for Bowie’s newborn son, known to the world as Zowie Bowie, poor thing), and in the middle of the album too, acting as a centrepiece for the album. This demonstrates the albums perfect balance. Admittedly, most of the “hits” seem to be placed on the albums A side, but there is almost as much to be found on the second half.
Lyrically, it seems that Bowie is drawing inspiration Bob Dylan
, with his often seemingly non-sensical, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. These are most evident on album closer “The Bewlay Brothers”. While no coherent meaning can be drawn from the lyrics, the words and themes always compliment the sound. It’s not meant to be dissected, but rather enjoyed. His lyrics are vividly descriptive though, as on the tribute song to his inspirationBob Dylan
, whose voice he likens to sand and glue. It is in the second verse, however, that he has written his most accurate description of Dylan’s genius: “You sat behind a million pair of eyes and told them how they saw”. While Dylan has always been reluctant to be labelled the voice of a generation, he has definitely been a spokesman of sorts, writing about subjects that many could relate to. The song is a poignant ode to one of modern music’s greatest song writers and one of the best songs on the album. “Queen Bitch”, the album’s only real rocker, foreshadows Bowie’s next album, glam rock masterpiece “Ziggy Stardust”. The song has been dedicated to the Velvet Underground
, who must have been an inspiration as Bowie moved into the glam rock territory. Pop artist Andy Warhol also gets a nod, with the song of the same name, featuring Bowie’s trademark baffling lyrics: “Andy Warhol looks a scream / Hang him on my wall / Andy Warhol, silver screen / Can’t tell them apart at all”
is the album where Bowie cemented his position as a truly gifted song writer. A few songs don’t compare to highlights such as “Life on Mars” and “Quicksand” but that says more about the highlights than the rest. Every song is great in its own right, about half of them are completely essential and “Life on Mars” stands as the greatest song I have ever heard in my life. David Bowie, in his constant exploration of new musical territory never attempted to make another album like this. He went on to create other, different masterpieces, but he never surpassed ”Hunky Dory”.