David Bowie Retrospective Series – Part 2: Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed

In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the upcoming release date of March 12, 2013.

Space Oddity

Starting with the faint, ominous strums of an acoustic guitar and ending with a rapturous chorus of singers fading into silence, this record already has much more working in its favor than the previous album.

Space Oddity (aka David Bowie (yes, another self-titled album), aka Man of Words / Man of Music … we’re just gonna call it Space Oddity, okay?) was released in 1969 with the title track being strategically released as a single on June 11, 1969, around the same time as the moon landing of the Apollo 11. This topical material gave David Bowie his first hit single in the UK, reaching #5 in the charts and in turn, creating an opportune environment for the release of a new album.

Despite the imagery of the title track, the majority of this album’s content does not deal with extraterrestrial subject matter. In fact, Space Oddity is a down-to-earth, folk-influenced, singer-songwriter album. While that description might make this record sound dull, the material presented in this collection is anything but boring.

The songs on the tracklist range from melodic pop tunes (“Space Oddity,” “Janine”) to progressive Dylan-esque folk tracks (“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee,” “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud,” “Memory of a Free Festival”) and back to dreamily tender love songs (“Letter to Hermione,” “An Occasional Dream”). And unlike the previous album whose diverse themes made for a perplexing experience, Space Oddity benefits from the amount of variety that is included.

Overall, Bowie’s songwriting seems to have made some noticeable improvements since his 1967 album. This is illustrated in the ambitious scope of “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” and to a greater extent, in the storytelling of “Cygnet Committee” which arguably serves as the nine minute and thirty-three second high point of the record. Equally impressive, however, are the songs that are more subdued. Most notable in this classification is “Letter to Hermione” whose bare emotional poignancy propels it to stand as one of the finest and starkest songs on the album.

There are still instances where this record shows its faults. For starters, the inclusion of the would-be outtake “Don’t Sit Down” is more ineffectual than humorous; although judging from the way he cracks up, Mr. Bowie found it to be quite amusing at the time. And while “God Knows I’m Good” does come off as an earnest attempt at some kind of social commentary, it doesn’t exactly pay off as well as it could have, and it is one song in particular that does bring back unwanted memories of Bowie’s first album.

Space Oddity is a David Bowie album that typically has a lot of mixed opinions surrounding it, and whether it receives favorable or unfavorable mention varies upon which website or publication you look at. Objectively, I can see that there are some noticeable faults. It is perhaps disjointed in the way it shifts tone, and admittedly, not every song here is a home-run. Subjectively however, this is one of the David Bowie albums I return to most often. I like the fact that it encompasses so much because even though it may be erratic, it somehow does still feel like a cohesive group of songs, and many of them work quite well. From the point things start off with the story of Major Tom to the swell of chorus singers in “Memory of a Free Festival,” the songs remain strong, and overall, the record makes for an impactful experience.

Space Oddity may not make it on to many top 5 lists for Bowie fans, but there is a lot of good material to be found here. In spite of its arguable flaws, this is the first David Bowie album that I would recommend to both to newcomers and fans alike.

My Rating: 4 out of 5
Highlights: “Space Oddity,” “Cygnet Committee,” “Letter to Hermione,” “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud,” “Memory of a Free Festival”
A Very Bowie Moment: “I’m a phallus in pigtails” – “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
Best Edition: The newly-remastered 2009 2-disc version of Space Oddity is worth the extra money for the previously unreleased demo versions of songs and for non-album tracks like “The Prettiest Star,” “Conversation Piece,” and the two-part single version of “Memory of a Free Festival.”

The Man Who Sold the World

In the same way that Space Oddity’s acoustic guitar strums set the pace for the rest of that record, so does the squeal of guitar feedback that begins The Man Who Sold the World. And just as the opening of the album suggests, this indeed marks one of the first in a career of many ch-ch-ch-ch…oh, nevermind.

While the previous release saw Bowie incorporating progressive song structures in the framework of folk music, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World is where those ideas are applied to a proto-metal/glam rock style. The shift towards a more guitar-heavy tone may be attributed to guitarist Mick Ronson and producer/bassist Tony Visconti who both reportedly took a larger role in composing the record’s instrumental material while the newly-married Bowie was spending time with his wife.

Thematically, this record adopts a distinctively darker tone. Touching on topics such as madness (“All the Madmen” and homicidally so in “Running Gun Blues”), philosophical ponderings of adulthood (“After All”), real or imagined doppelgangers (“The Man Who Sold the World”), and depictions of godlike beings (“The Supermen,” “The Width of a Circle”), The Man Who Sold the World remains one of Bowie’s most gothically charged albums.

Appropriately enough, in an album that is full of musical and lyrical experimentation, Bowie also seems to be experimenting with his image. Gone is the puffball of Dylan hair that covered the Space Oddity album. Now we are met by the image of a long-haired David Bowie seemingly playing a game of 52 pick-up on a couch while wearing a silky form-sitting dress.

The idea of androgyny is certainly one that Bowie would return to in his future albums, but The Man Who Sold the World is the first instance where he publicly adopts that persona.  This is shown both in the infamous cover image and in songs like “The Width of a Circle.” Debatably the centerpiece of the album, this epically structured song describes a supernatural homoerotic encounter, possibly with a devil or some other godlike being depending on your interpretation (“His nebulous body swayed above, his tongue swollen with devil’s love, the snake and I, a venom high, I said ‘Do it again, do it again’”).

Overall, The Man Who Sold the World works quite well as a sort of psychedelic/gothic piece. Songs like the aforementioned “The Width of a Circle” as well as “All the Madmen,” “After All,” “The Supermen,” and the unforgettable title track particularly stand out as finely crafted rock songs. There are some missteps where songs can seem somewhat pandering such as “Savior Machine” and “Running Gun Blues,” but even though these perhaps aren’t the most successful songs on the album, they still succeed in at least providing some impactful lyrics, and they are by no means poorly done.

Like Space Oddity, I could easily recommend The Man Who Sold the World to anyone who has yet to experience it, but for different reasons. The previous album may have been best suited for fans of Bob Dylan or of folk music in general, but I’d venture to say that this record may find its audience among fans of groups like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, or even bands with a gothic edge like Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The lasting effect of this album arguably lies in the atmosphere it provides. In execution, much of this material seems unsettling, foreboding. Almost as if to signal that something radical and enigmatic was taking shape…

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Width of a Circle,” “All the Madmen,” “After All,” “The Man Who Sold the World,” “The Supermen”
A Very Bowie Moment: “Zane, zane zane. Ouvrez le chien.” (The second part of the lyric literally translates to “Open the dog.”)  – “All the Madmen”
Best Edition: If you can get your hands on the out-of-print 1990 Rykodisc version, I’d recommend that for the non-album tracks “Lightening Frightening” and “Holy Holy.”