In 1970, David Bowie was dropped from his label after the sales of The Man Who Sold the World and David Bowie were less than desirable. So he took his recordings for his next album, and, upon hearing the tapes in early 1971, RCA immediately signed Bowie to a record deal, releasing the album only two months later.
The album, Hunky Dory, is an oft forgotten one. The most well known track from it, “Changes”, only gets occasional radio play, and the next most well known, “Life on Mars?” hasn’t been the subject of any sort of radio play since around 1973. The album is a crucial one for Bowie, though. Musically, Bowie rounds up where he’s been with the singer-songwriter pop gems “Kooks” and “Fill Your Heart”, where he’s going “Queen Bitch” and “Oh! You Pretty Things”, and what’s getting him there, “Andy Warhol”, “Song for Bob Dylan”.
The album is a bit broad–lots of ideas, all over the place–but it’s unified by Bowie’s singular voice, and operatic style. It may not be the “definitive” David Bowie album, but there’s excellent work representing nearly every album until from his debut through Young Americans, and hints of what comes after that.
“Changes” opens the album, with slow horns and a thumping pianos. The song serves almost as a table of contents for the album, and Bowie’s chameleonic career. He sings, “Strange fascination, fascinating me / Changes are taking the pace I’m going through / Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!” The song is more intricately arranged than most of Bowie’s work to date, and the horns and strings hint at his “plastic soul” on Young Americans, even as the song sounds more like Hoagy Carmichael than Billy Paul.
The next track, “Oh! You Pretty Things” has Bowie’s love for science-fiction at work, though hidden. The song’s lyric’s remind of Nietzsche, with the next generation constituting “the Golden Ones”, and the “Homo Superior”. The song starts on that Tin Pan Alley piano’s bouncing, and Bowie’s gentle vocal cooing, “Wake up you sleepyhead, put on some clothes shake up your bed / Put another log in the fire for me / I made some breakfast and coffee”, but shortly thereafter the song bursts with a melodic bass-line and tight drumming, as Bowie’s voice climbs. It’s never clear whether he’s embracing this “coming race”, or terrified of it, but it is certain that, once they arrive, nothing will ever be the same.
The album’s first single, “Life on Mars?” was released only after Ziggy Stardust catapulted Bowie to fame and fortune. The opening piano, and Bowie’s thin voice sound lonely for thirty seconds, setting up the story of a girl’s broken relationship with her parents, and her escape to dreams so vivid they’re like movies of Salvador Dali-esque madness. At that half-minute mark, Mick Ronson’s string arrangement kicks in with a deep, brutal stroke of the cello, Bowie’s voice rising in pitch and volume during the pre-chorus (“But the film is a saddening bore because she’s lived it 10 times or more / She could spit in the eyes of fools as they as her to focus on”) , and then exploding and flaring out during the chorus (“Sailors, fighting in the dance hall! / Oh man! Look at those cavemen go / It’s the freakiest show”). The song is operatic in its drama, almost completely over-the-top, but one of Ronson’s best arrangements, and the second best vocal performance of Bowie’s career hold everything together. The song is, in a word, brilliant.
The middle trio of songs, “Kooks”, “Quicksand”, and “Fill Your Heart”, serve as a deep breath between the drama of the first and final thirds of the album. Both “Kooks” and “Fill Your Heart” are gentle, child-like songs. “Kooks” is intentionally child-like, as Bowie wrote it for his newborn son, and “Fill Your Heart” is a bouncy sort of faux-inspiring cover song. “Quicksand” is a gem, with its slow grow, and it’s lyrical references to just about everything. It’s a frequently over-analyzed song because of its seemingly non-sequitur lyrics and its heavy, but often ambiguous commentary on politics, religion, and various metaphysical items of his interest. Bowie’s not telling us what he’s meaning, though, singing “If I don’t explain what you ought to know you can tell me all about it on the next Bardo”.
The final four tracks are all related to Bowie’s influences. “Andy Warhol begins with a strange, high pitched keyboard and some almost cryptic in-studio dialogue between Bowie in a producer. Twin acoustic guitars interact as Bowie wails on his apparent muse. “Song For Bob Dylan” begins with a warm electric guitar riff. Bowie announces to Dylan that this song is for him, and thanks him for what he’s done, before the song bubbles up with a memorable chorus, “Here she come, here she comes, here she comes again! / That same old painted lady from the brow of a superman!”
The next song, “Queen Bitch”, is, famously, a Velvet Underground tribute. Bowie had been a fan of the Velvets since the mid-sixties, even before their first LP was released. Bowie leads things off with a crisp acoustic pattern and countoff before Ronson jumps in with a massive, distorted guitar riff so filthy it alone explains the title of the song. The lyrics sound like Lou Reed could have written them, but Bowie sings them with such moaning hysteria, he may have, amazingly, outdone Reed at his own game, howling “Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, / It coulda been me, it coulda me, / Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, / No! No! No! No!”. The song is brilliant, and finds Bowie at his rock’n’roll best.
The closing number, “The Bewlay Brothers” is, like “Quicksand”, among Bowie’s most over-analyzed. The lyrics are strange: either a constant flow of ambiguous metaphors and oracular imagery, or a string of nonsense. Either way, their well placed, with internal rhyme and euphony. The simplicity of the melody, and the familiarity of its rhyming juxtapose nicely with the near-total foreignness of the lyrics, giving this masterpiece an appropriately epic, but comfortable, conclusion.