I can’t help but compare this to Sonic Youth’s EVOL, another overrated-but-not-without-its-moments album that’s been elevated simply because it’s the first respectable album by a canonized artist – no one should care about David Bowie’s first eponymous album; if you haven’t heard “Space Oddity” enough on the classic rock radio, you can find it on any best of compilation that renders his second eponymous effort obsolete, and I get the feeling if Nirvana didn’t unearth “The Man Who Sold the World” decades later, no one would care about the album with the same name either. Maybe I’m being facetious about the last one, but you get the point, I hope.
That being said, Hunky Dory is special because it’s the only album in David Bowie’s half-century-long discography that succeeds without any of the pretentiousness that we know and love him for. Well, almost any: the social critique of “Life on Mars?” is a dry run for the entirety of Ziggy Stardust and there’s the random namedrops within “Quicksand” to navigate. There’s the obvious examples of his humility: the confessional and self-depreciating lyrics in “Quicksand,” naming songs after Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, giving shout-outs to the Velvet Underground in the liner notes for “Queen Bitch” (great tune, but I don’t see the “White Light/White Heat” influence at all), writing a quick ditty to an imaginary son, Zowie Bowie (“Kooks”). But there’s other stuff too: he bothers to end “Andy Warhol” with some audience applause, but it’s so tepid, it’s as if he’s unsure of his own songwriting at this point in time (recall that Hunky Dory was only a modest hit at the time, and “Life on Mars” wouldn’t become a classic single until after the release and success of Ziggy Stardust). Meanwhile, Yes’ Rick Wakeman (in the all-caps-and-exclamation-marks-excitement of Mark Prindle, “RICK WAKEMAN! From YES! RICK WAKEMAN! FROM YES!!!! FROM YES!!!!! ARE YOU READING ME??? RICK “PATRICK MORAZ” WAKEMAN!!! FROM YES!!!!!”) is playing piano here, but you wouldn’t know it unless someone told you because David Bowie has him play really without any character that people know and love Rick Wakeman for, as if afraid that Rick would overpower him if he did (which is exactly what happened when Yes’ Steve Howe was hired and allowed to run rampant for Lou Reed’s debut the next year).
But I reiterate: overrated. For one thing, he seems to think that hooks are the only redeemable parts of songs, and the verses in “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Kooks” are just kind of there because he’s just following Chapter 2 of Songwriting for Dummies that dictates that choruses need to be separated by verses. I suppose it speaks to the power of the hooks that those songs are still great, especially the one in “Changes,” which walks in the room, takes one look at the unmelodic verse and quickly boots it out the room. The same critique almost applies for “Andy Warhol,” but the song ends with a fascinating interplay between two guitars, with one long-jumping constantly between two pings over an acoustic bed. Meanwhile, the ugliest tendency of glam rock rears its ugly head here: theatricality in place of substance. “Eight Line Poem” is dictionary definition of filler, with Bowie doing a horrific Bob Dylan impression over Ronson and Wakeman trading bars with each other, but neither are allowed more than a couple of notes or chords at a time to ever do anything interesting. His voice is equally unbearable on cover “Fill This Album”—oops—“Fill Your Heart.” Closer “The Bewlay Brothers” features the return of the vocals from “The Laughing Gnome,” and musically, it’s no more than a long drawn-out crescendo and subsequent decrescendo. These are stark contrasts to “Queen Bitch,” which rocks in a theatrical way, but at least doesn’t forget to rock. And as touching as “Quicksand” or “Song for Bob Dylan” might be lyrically, they don’t interest me musically – the former seems to be just a patchwork of parts strung together disguised as a long cohesive unit.
But I’m forgetting something, obviously. “Life on Mars?” is undeniable, easily nabbing a high spot in David Bowie’s best songs, the best songs of that year and the best singles of 1973 when it was finally given its due. It’s exempt from all of the criticisms that I’ve layered the rest of the songs on Hunky Dory; he doesn’t forget to inject the verses with melody, or with meaning – a social critique against the ugliness of Earth and its inhabitants that are killing it and themselves. It’s theatrical in addition to being substantial; there’s the obvious crescendo leading to David Bowie’s “IS THERE LIFE ON MARS?” and when the strings first come in, they sound like the blowhorn of a ship breaking through the fog – they’re the ones that likely singlehandedly inspired Hans Zimmer to become a composer for blockbuster films (see:Inception in particular).
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In spite of all my negativity, I’ll just say that what happens with “Changes” easily happens to the album as a whole – the positives easily outweigh the negatives.
His fourth best album.