Review Summary: A strange, mad celebration…The Man Who Sold The World
was an absolutely pivotal release for David Bowie. It saw the first of many criticalities, including the inclusion of future Spider from Mars, Mick Ronson; a new-found grasp of musical and thematic direction; and a vastly improved vocal and lyrical performance from a maturing poet.
The album is every bit as mind-bending and twisted as the iconic artwork adorning the cover of Bowie’s 3rd LP - an album which would go on to become one of his finest accomplishments, as critical reception warmed over the years. The nine, twisted hard-rock tracks on offer are rife with flirtations with insanity, brought on by the influence of Nietzsche, and Bowie’s family issues, including the visits from his mentally deteriorating half-brother and the recent death of his father.
The musical component (which included producer Tony Visconti on bass) is a tightly coiled, freakish folk/hard-rock cocktail, marked by fuzzy, hissing bass chords, razor sharp, gnarled lead riffs, off-kilter percussion, and even an ancient synthesiser cropping on a couple of tracks. It’s fair to say that The Man Who Sold The World
is easily one of the heaviest albums Bowie ever recorded.
The twisted, distorted hard-rock and demented arrangements blend perfectly with Bowie’s intensely personal questioning of purity and darkness; his lyrics reaching an early peak of paranoia and bizarreness. The album finds Bowie battling with the personal demons he labelled the “devils and angels” within him, all wrapped up in a fantastically frightening science fictional blanket, informed by his recent fascination with Nietzsche’s writings.
It all comes together brilliantly on highlights such as the lengthy opening cut, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, which builds upon its infectious lead riff and progresses into a full-fledged classic, unfolding and setting the scene for things to come, both lyrically and musically, with Bowie’s inward-gazing confession: “Then I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree / And I looked and frowned and the monster was me”, articulating his personal revelation with the analogical “monster” - a Nietzschean caricature, another of which would surface in closing number ‘The Supermen’.
Other standouts include the beautiful, horror-tinged madness of ‘All The Madmen’, with its catchy chorus, sprightly synthesised backing and fantastic guitar work; the Bolan-esque warble present on the grinding, snarled ‘Black Country Rock’; the freakish folk of ‘After All’, and the ultra-violent ‘Running Gun Blues’.
The title track deserves a special mention, seeing as it’s one of Bowie’s most obvious early classics. It’s terrifically odd and menacing, with Bowie’s haunting, ghostly vocals blending with the subdued bass and propulsive riff. ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ went on to display its grand influence when Nirvana performed a superb cover of the song on their legendary MTV Unplugged
set in 1993, which Cobain complemented with “the debt we all owe David”.
The Man Who Sold The World
was a crucial turning point for David Bowie as it marked the first time he found a solid direction in which to channel his ideas. This time it came in the form of maniacal hard-rock, which, when combined with some of Bowie’s finest, twisted, self-searching poetry, made for a truly astounding and groundbreaking release. It may not be as consistent or hit-worthy as some of his later work, but The Man Who Sold The World
was undeniably one hell of a way to enter the seventies - a decade which would soon witness the true birth of it’s Bowie-shaped master.