Review Summary: Shades of blues, shades of hard rock, and a stylistic overhaul mark the true launchpad for David Bowie's success.Chapter III: The Man Who Blindsided the World
The Man Who Sold the World
begins with a bit of a doozy: an 8-minute mammoth of a hard rock song, one with several progressive twists and turns and a wealth of churning proto-metal riffs. “The Width of a Circle” is, for all intents and purposes, the first proper introduction to the David Bowie we would all come to love. Not only does this record sound much more comfortable and self-assured when compared to Bowie’s first few efforts, but the groundwork for his artistic progression and chameleonic genre-bending was finally established. On a surface level, it’s easy to say that bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream were huge influences on the album, which - judging by the fact that this may be one of David Bowie’s most hard-edged and bluesy recordings - would seem accurate. But listen closely, and the eccentricities start flying around pretty quickly. Even the aforementioned opener is peppered with some unusual R&B overtones and a weird story involving sexual relations with a supernatural being, offering a closer look into the odd catalogue Bowie would grace us with. Add to that some quirky Moog melodies (“All the Madmen”), touches of psychedelia (the title track), lots of blues (almost every track), and a strong folk influence (“After All,” “All the Madmen,” the title track, among others), and his diverse art rock blend was coming along very nicely at this point.
Appropriately, David Bowie’s vocal work would also become much more distinct and varied by this time. Soft, delicate whispers in the folk-oriented material is met with soaring theatrics during the hard rock moments, and Bowie sounds more comfortable and polished in his performances here. He’s clearly having a lot of fun, especially in songs like “Running Gun Blues” and “The Width of a Circle” which see him let loose with the more bombastic side of his personality. Then again, the strange lyrical themes explored really lend themselves to this kind of vocal diversity. Let’s run down the list, shall we? We get everything from supernatural sex in hell (“Width of a Circle”) to technological commentary (“Saviour Machine”) to insanity (“All the Madmen”) to the works of H. P. Lovecraft (“The Superman”) to anti-war commentary (“Running Gun Blues”). There’s no shortage of variety, in other words, and level of charm and detail in the songwriting matches it all quite well. There’s even some Queen-esque glam rock stuff thrown in; the densely-layered prog-meets-art rock of “Saviour Machine” would have fit really well on Queen II
from back in that era (minus the synths, of course). If there’s anything that could constitute as a flaw on The Man Who Sold the World
, it would revolve around the fact that David Bowie hadn’t quite reached the peak of his artistic evolution just yet. The pacing of the album is still somewhat off, the hard rock can get a bit overbearing from time to time, and the whole thing does wear its contemporary influences just a bit too thinly on its sleeve. But the record is still important as hell regardless. No matter how much his 1969 self-titled represented a great leap forward, this was his true launching pad. On top of that, it started a legendary era for David Bowie that most artists could only dream of reaching artistically.