Review Summary: If you listened to this directly after David Bowie's debut album, you probably wouldn't even believe the same artist made both records.
(Note: Space Oddity
was initially titled David Bowie
back in 1969, but RCA's retitling Space Oddity
is the one I'll use for this review as it's become the more commonly accepted title of the record)
Chapter II: Fresh Start, Promising Future
The most notable thing about David Bowie's 1967 self-titled debut is the fact that it sounded nothing like the David Bowie we know and love. Who was this Beatles wannabe singing derivative music hall and baroque pop tunes? Well, that Beatles wannabe would eventually become one of the biggest legends of popular music, and Space Oddity
would become a major piece in the proverbial puzzle that is his discography. Anchored by one hell of a title track and exhibiting a much more matured artist, the difference between Space Oddity
and David Bowie
is simply night and day. Here we have a varied mix of folk, psychedelic rock, and progressive rock influences scattered about a 45-minute runtime, and the evolution of David Bowie's songwriting has become abundantly clear at this point. In fact, judging by the album's 1969 release date, this could actually be considered a pioneering work in progressive rock alongside In the Court of the Crimson King
and Days of Future Passed
. There's even a song that almost clocks in at ten minutes, titled "Cygnet Committee," which captures the bombast and little vocal/instrumental quirks of what would become David Bowie's strongest work; the heavily layered arrangement becomes a fantastic marriage of folk and hard rock opposites, and the ambitious groundwork of future Bowie albums is being laid. But what really manages to impress here, believe it or not, is the folk stuff. It would make sense to call Space Oddity
a transitional album because it doesn't quite capture Bowie's signature sound yet, but this experience is still incredibly well-written and even beautiful on its own merits. "Letter to Harmione," a minimalistic acoustic ballad, has a lovely washed-out and almost hazy vibe that makes it incredibly relaxing. Perhaps it's due to Bowie's mellow vocals combined with the dreamlike guitar chords, but there's a strange power to the song. And speaking of "washed-out," the amazing folk moments of "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" often generate the same feel, except in this case it's met with bluesy hard rock segments that showcase the variety in Bowie's vocals. And that Bob Dylan-esque harmonica playing is just killer.
There's the occasional throwback to David Bowie's first album, especially in the vocal stylings and whimsical flute populating "An Occasional Dream," but it all still strikes the listener with much more finesse and grace than the blatant strangeness of the prior record. The orchestral moments compliment the songs and gel with them much more smoothly, especially on "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" in which the strings and harp meld with the acoustic guitar in something that sounds both dramatic and tasteful. In fact, as weird as it sounds, there's something about that song's adventurous nature that reminds me of the video game series The Legend of Zelda
, particularly in how the harp brings a sense of mystery to the music. But isn't there a song I've been leaving out? Yep, let's talk about the one everyone's waiting for. "Space Oddity" is indeed a masterpiece, one that essentially shaped Bowie's career for his future successes. Why? Because it's a masterpiece of atmosphere and dynamics. Right from those famous first words "Ground control to Major Tom," this mesmerizing tale of a fictional astronaut and his travels through space is in a league of its own. The gorgeous mellotron orchestration (courtesy of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman), was the perfect instrument in creating a spacious and larger-than-life feel alongside the slow ballad-like tempo. The deeply emotional flute and electric guitar portions are just icing on the cake, as are the propulsive acoustic guitar breaks. Unfortunately, Space Oddity
isn't quite up there with Bowie's classic records despite all of this. A lot of it comes from tonal inconsistency; NME once called this album "all that Bowie had been and a little of what he would become, all jumbled up and fighting for control..." and they bring up a good point. While quite a few songs here are excellent, the album as a whole is a bit confused as far as style is concerned and doesn't really play like a cohesive whole. This would eventually be rectified as future albums more thoroughly captured his signature sound and enigmatic persona; however, all things considered, I still highly recommend Space Oddity
. It might be a little jumbled, but it's still an excellent folk rock album that benefits from a lot of personality and songwriting flair. And hell, this is LEAGUES ahead of the debut album. David Bowie wasn't quite at the height of his game yet, but he soon would be.