The Good: Great voice, Decent lyrics, Interesting instrumentals
The Bad: Short, Somewhat less strong on the b-side.
The Basics: David Bowie's Hunky Dory is a memorable rock and roll album that has both "Changes" and "Life On Mars," offering a lot to those studying rock or Bowie.
Sometimes, there are albums that contain incredible songs that help to truly define a musical artist. It is inarguable that David Bowie is a truly amazing musical artist. He wrote almost all of his lyrics, played instruments, sang his lines and later produced his albums as he musically experimented. But back in his early career, David Bowie created some albums that have amazing concentrations of hit songs that are easily listenable, highly replayable and help define trends rather than just follow them.
Hunky Dory, by David Bowie, is one such album. As rock and roll split between folk-rock and anthemic guitar bands, Bowie rose as a strange mix of the two, who sang storysongs while adding a richer, more substantive sound to his songs than those who stuck with the folk-rock tradition. As others leaned toward disco - in the late 70s - Bowie went and refined his pop-rock sound with its more diverse instrumentation than the guitar bands who were dominating the airwaves. In the early 1970s when Bowie released Hunky Dory, he released one of his seminal albums, one that included his iconic anthem "Changes" as well as his perfect single "Life On Mars."
With only eleven songs, clocking out at 41:34, Hunky Dory is a masterwork of songs primarily by David Bowie. Bowie wrote ten of the songs, all but "Fill In Your Heart." Rather oddly, Bowie is credited with writing the bulk of the songs - music and lyrics - but his guitarist partner, Mick Ronson, was responsible for the arrangement of many of the tracks. It is odd to consider that David Bowie did not arrange either "Changes" or "Life On Mars." Neither did Bowie produce the album. That responsibility, along with mixing the album, fell to Ken Scott.
But the album still appears to be largely David Bowie's creative influence and musical vision. In addition to writing almost all of the songs, Bowie performs lead vocals on each and every track. As well, he plays guitar, piano and alto and tenor saxophones. It seems odd to suggest that he would have written and performed all of the songs in a way that he was uncomfortable with. One assumes there are aspects of Hunky Dory which Bowie controlled and performed his way even if he is not entirely credited with such control.
Hunky Dory got me thinking once again about my standards and with this album, I found myself oscillating greatly over. After a dozen listens, I was ready to declare it a perfect album; after another five, I came to believe that all of the best songs were ones that appeared on various "Best Of" albums. I came to enjoy "Eight Line Poem" and "Song For Bob Dylan" less and it took a few more listens for me to enjoy "The Bewlay Brothers" more again. Ultimately, what left the album out of consideration as a perfect album was the fact that while "Andy Warhol" and "The Bewlay Brothers" were interesting, the best songs were on "Best Of" albums and not too much would have been missing from my musical education had I missed out on those other singles.
That said, David Bowie is a true original and many of the songs on Hunky Dory make the album legitimately great. Bowie's vocals are articulate and clear. Songs like "Changes" where he stutters the titled word and adding reverb to the vocals at important moments in "the Bewlay Brothers" illustrate a creative talent for enhancing his lyrics and vocals in a way that works for him. As well, while he stays comfortably within his range on songs like "Oh! You Pretty Things," he enters the higher registers and limits of his abilities on songs like "Eight Line Poem."
Outside the vocals, Bowie is quite attuned on Hunky Dory with instrumental performances that range from memorable to intense and groundbreaking. Anyone who truly loves rock and roll will recognize the melody to "Life On Mars" and what is so impressive about it is not the rock and roll nature of it, but rather the orchestral timbre to it. Instead of making a traditional rock and roll anthem, though the guitars late in the piece do provide that element, Bowie's piano mixes with a string section that is quite impressive. Still, he makes classic rock tunes like "Queen Bitch" that help dominate the album.
But what makes David Bowie and Hunky Dory relevant after all of these years are the lyrics. David Bowie is a master lyricist and his songs range from storysongs to observations on the nature of reality. He makes the biggest moments personal on songs like "Changes" and pays homage to the masters on songs like "Song For Bob Dylan." Bowie, who ironically would later play Andy Warhol in at least one film, had the song "Andy Warhol" on "Hunky Dory." On that song, Bowie penned "Like to take a cement fix / Be a standing cinema / Dress my friends up / Just for show / See them as they really are / Put a peephole in my brain / Two New Pence to have a go / I'd like to be a gallery / Put you all inside my show / Andy Warhol looks a scream / Hang him on my wall / Andy Warhol, Silver Screen / Can't tell them apart at all" ("Andy Warhol"). Bowie is a true poet who paints with words like Warhol paints with acrylics.
As well, Bowie creates masterful storysongs on Hunky Dory with clear and vivid characters that are interesting to hear about. On "Kooks," he created a playful tune with lines like "And if you ever have to go to school / Remember how they messed up / This old fool / Don't pick fights with the bullies / Or the cads / 'Cause I'm not much cop at punching other people's Dads / And if the homework brings you down / Then we'll throw it on the fire /And take the car downtown." Bowie observed movements in society and simply sang about them, creating tunes that are interesting even forty years later.
But best of all, David Bowie was articulate and clear, singing in a way that made his lyrics come front and center. Bowie is not so concerned with predictable, ordinary rhymes or simple diction, either. While it might not seem like a big deal, there aren't many artists today who use words like "improbable" and "saccharin," as Bowie does on "The Bewlay Brothers." As well, the opening to "Changes" is hardly bland or passe with its atypical rhyme scheme. Bowie opens with "I still don't know what I was waiting for / And my time was running wild / A million dead-end streets / Every time I thought I had it made / It seemed the taste was not so sweet" ("Changes"). It is impressive what Bowie created that sounded unlike what anyone else had done.
Ultimately, Hunky Dory deserves praise for its originality and its generally groundbreaking sound. The album is a must for anyone who likes anthemic, storytelling rock and roll and it holds up well to this day.
For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Christiane F. Soundtrack
Eart hl i ng
Best Of Bowie (1 Disc version)
The Best Of Bowie (2 Disc version)
For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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