The Good: Good vocals, Interesting instrumentals, Decent lyrics, Interesting concept
The Bad: SHORT!
The Basics: David Bowie impresses with a perfect album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, which is a clever concept album, still relevant today.
As my month of David Bowie reviews continues, I find myself getting into some of the classic Bowie that made David Bowie a household name and a legitimate superstar. Arguably the album I had heard the most hype about prior to my month-long study of the artist was The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Billed as a concept album, this is generally regarded as one of Bowie's first perfect albums and one that is a must-have for fans and collectors of rock and roll alike.
Those "experts" . . . are right, in this case. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (henceforth truncated to Ziggy Stardust for ease of reading, despite the fact that track nine has the same title) is a conceptual masterpiece; a rock and roll science fiction album that creates a story that works wonderfully as a rock opera (though there are other songs not included on this album that are intended to complete the "story"). In fact, the only real problem with Ziggy Stardust is that with the compact disc's greater capacity, David Bowie did not release the complete rock opera the way he intended it to, with all of the tracks to tell the complete story. That said, this is a perfect album and well worth the attention of anyone who loves great rock and roll.
With only eleven songs, clocking out at 38:24, Ziggy Stardust is a masterwork of rock and roll that is almost entirely David Bowie's musical vision. Bowie wrote all but "It Ain't Easy," without any co-writers. He provides all of the lead vocals and he plays guitars and saxophones throughout the album. As well, he is credited with a co-producer credit and is acknowledged for "arrangements" (with Mick Ronson). In other words, this is very much David Bowie's musical vision and it is hard to argue that the result is not the one he intended.
And that vision is quite impressive. Ziggy Stardust has the sound that exceeds the range and depth of the average "one man and a guitar" sound. To be fair, Bowie has three other people playing instruments, but the quartet that performs on Ziggy Stardust exceeds the sound and depth of the typical "guitar, bass, drums" band. In other words, this does not sound like a garage band. In addition to being because there are pianos and saxophones, this effect is achieved by Bowie's production on the album.
Songs like "Star" include grandiose guitar riffs that are still audacious and spectacular today. When one considers that the album was originally released in 1972, that it still sounds fresh, interesting and worthwhile today, this is quite an accomplishment. Bowie's relevancy is not only because he created a rock opera that works as well as singles ("Suffragette City," "Starman," and the song "Ziggy Stardust" are included in compilations frequently enough), but for the instrumental sound and the layering of multiple guitars and vocals. Bowie pushed out of the '60's folk-rock tradition by increasing production elements that brought electricity back to rock and roll music in a way that - in the U.S. - had been lacking.
Ziggy Stardust also illustrates how production elements on guitars and drums need not drown out great vocals. Opening with the vastly underrated "Five Years," which establishes the concept of the album but works beautifully as a metaphor or anthem for a relationship song for the terminally ill, Bowie performs at his vocal peak. His voice is smooth, flawless and illustrates a great range. As a result, Bowie's vocals are smooth on "Five Years," melodic on "Starman," pained and mournful on "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" and speedy and articulate on "Suffragette City." No two tracks sound identical and vocally, that has to do a great deal with Bowie utilizing his voice in tremendously different ways throughout.
Moreover, Bowie is at some of his most poetic on The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. The concept is interesting; a rock opera about the world five years from the known end of existence. And while that might seem like a dated concept - the paranoia and realistic fear of the apocalypse that surrounded the '50's through early '80s - the fear has persisted even as the methods for our paranoid end of the world scenarios has changed. But Bowie called it right on Ziggy Stardust as he foresaw the end of the world from a lack of natural resources and the collapse of world economies and societies as a result. The album holds together with that concept, characters and a very complete sense of story (though having read which tracks were intended for this album and ended up on others, it is difficult to listen to the album now and not feel like something is missing) and Bowie deserves immense credit for that.
But more than that, Bowie presents songs that hold up well on their own, outside just the concept. One of those songs is "Five Years," which might be one of Bowie's most underrated songs, despite the way it perfectly establishes the mood, tone and concept for the album. Still, independent of the Ziggy Stardust story, the song works with its lines like "And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor / And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there / Your face, your race, the way that you talk / I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk / We've got five years, stuck on my eyes / We've got five years, what a surprise / We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot / We've got five years, that's all we've got" ("Five Years"). Indeed, this is an enduring anthem for any relationship that one has with a ticking clock.
As well, Bowie creates a few traditional sounding love songs that allow Ziggy Stardust to have greater widespread appeal. So, for example, when he sings "New love - a boy and girl are talking / New words - that only they can share in / New words - a love so strong it tears their hearts / To sleep - through the fleeting hours of morning / Love is careless in its choosing / Sweeping over cross a baby / Love descends on those defenseless" ("Soul Love"), it may easily apply outside the "storyline" of Ziggy Stardust. Indeed, this is Bowie presenting something universal and cleverly original at the same time. His diction is impressive and he clearly has something to say.
At the same time, Bowie continues to impress listeners with his fierce originality. Ziggy Stardust has science fiction elements and that is a rare thing in rock and roll, be it 1972 or 2009. The reason Ziggy Stardust holds up so well over the decades is that Bowie chose universal and intriguing themes, like the best science fiction books and films do. Still, he makes them musical, as he does on "Starman," where he wrote ". . .Then the loud sound did seem to fade / Came back like a slow voice on a wave of phase / That weren't no D.J. that was hazy cosmic jive / There's a starman waiting in the sky / He'd like to come and meet us / But he thinks he'd blow our minds." Bowie is as good (better than some!) musical storyteller who can hold his own against virtually every folk-rock storyteller with rock and roll stories that are quirky and relevant.
Ultimately, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is a perfect album and it works both as a concept album and as a collection of alternately quirky and universal rock and roll singles. The ability to balance those elements well and musically is what makes a classic and this album truly is one. A must for anyone who loves rock and roll.
While the album continues to remain strong and gets better and better, the best track is "Five Years," the low point (which is not low at all) is "Hang On To Yourself."
For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
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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