Review Summary: Despite the claims of a certain Major Tom, this spaceship didn’t really know which way to go…
There’s an ever disputed claim by certain fans that Space Oddity
is David Bowie’s first essential album. They claim that its splendorous title track and handful of early gems make it a crucial purchase for any would-be Bowie fan, whilst other followers counter the notion of Space Oddity
’s importance with claims of a directionless album, that has a pocket of superb moments but remains too musically cleft to be labelled a truly essential outing. The truth, as often is the case with opposing opinions, lies somewhere in between.
Bowie’s second LP marks a massive step up in quality from his first tentative recording experiences under the ill-fated Deram label from 1966-68. Now recording for RCA/Phillips, Bowie’s song writing ability matured immensely, evidenced most startlingly by the album’s iconic title track, which climbed it’s way up to #5 in the UK charts upon its initial 1969 release (rush-released in time for the Moon landings in July, hindsight revealed), and more astonishingly, managed to hit #1 on both sides of the pond when it was re-released as a single in 1975.
‘Space Oddity’ is a deserved classic, and perhaps Bowie’s first strike of artistic genius, featuring wry lyrics that have been interpreted in a seemingly endless variety of ways since its late sixties conception. It’s tense orchestration and quirky use of the Stylophone provide the perfect backdrop to a series of eternally memorable lines - their ambiguity signifying the grand artistic quality at play. Its lyrics have been interpreted as an analogy for heroin use, an expression of isolation and alienation, and a cynical dig at the hysteria of the forthcoming moon landings. All of the aforementioned are plausible interpretations; as Bowie himself once said: “The piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation…”.
The remainder of the disc is less hit-worthy but does manage to still offer a few treats. ‘Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ bares witness to Bob Dylan’s influence on this period of Bowie’s work, with its angry, cynical lyrics and ragged harmonica interjections - a theme further explored in one of Bowie’s earliest masterpieces, ‘Cygnet Committee’. It’s a nine and a half minute epic writhing with Bowie’s growing disillusionment with the ‘Hippy’ movement and its apparent hypocrisies. It progresses from trippy, reverberated vocals to snarling yells of “I will fight for the right to be right”, eventually culminating in the cautiously optimistic chant of “I want to live”, backed by rapid percussion.
Other tracks take a lighter, folksy approach, such as the sentimental ‘Letter To Hermione’ and ‘An Occasional Dream’. Both are rife with stark expressions of sorrow brought on by Bowie’s recent split from girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, sounding unfamiliarly open and confessional when coming from an artist famous for residing behind multiple personas. They’re pleasant enough (especially the jaunty ‘Janine’, and the lush orchestration of ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’), but simultaneously, not that compelling; their starkness and foreignness sound somewhat unsatisfying.
Ultimately, Space Oddity
is an album without great direction. It suffers from a lack of cohesion and is too inconsistent to be considered a classic. It has classic moments for sure, but they’re sadly outweighed by the littering of weaker attempts at finding a niche for Bowie to grasp. On the one hand, Bowie’s song writing had dramatically improved, but on the other he still hadn’t found the right format to exploit his new-found adeptness. Space Oddity
really hammers home the notion that Bowie works best when he expresses himself through a persona. It gives him a focus - a focus which he unfortunately lacked on this particular album, with its uncomfortable darting between cynical protests and feather-soft tales of lost love.
Ending where I began; Space Oddity
is not the essential album some would claim, nor is it as disappointing as others suggest. Its inconsistency and lack of direction prevent it from earning essential status, but its most glistening gems - namely ‘Cygnet Committee’, ‘Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed’, and the title track - balance things out, and ultimately make Space Oddity
an enjoyable, if flawed listen.