Monday, November 21, 2011

More Average Than Extraordinary, Aladdin Sane (One-Disc) Version Is A Mediocre Concept Album.

The Good: Some interesting lyrics, General vocals
The Bad: Repetitive, Short, A better version exists
The Basics: A somewhat erratic concept album, Aladdin Sane is available in a better form for true fans.

As I prepare to begin reviewing my next Artist Of The Month, I decided it was high time I finished off the backlog of music reviews I had and finally posted my review of David Bowie's Aladdin Sane, the final album I was able to get in back in March from him. After two dozen listens to the album, I've discovered how very little of an impression it ultimately leaves. While it is easy to applaud the ambition of concept albums, Aladdin Sane is not Bowie's best. Neither is it his worst, though.

To cut through all of the "why" behind the review, ultimately, my "not recommend" is remarkably weak because there is a two-disc "30th Anniversary" Edition that fans of David Bowie's works will undoubtedly enjoy more. As well, in my rather rigorous standards, I find it difficult to recommend any album where the best tracks all appear on other albums. Sadly, though, of the four songs on Aladdin Sane that were released as singles, the one that continually is played now, "The Jean Genie" is neither one of Bowie's best musical story songs, nor one of the best songs on the album. But for those who want to defend Aladdin Sane, there is a better version. And for those of us who don't, perhaps the best note we can leave this version of the album with is that the value of Aladdin Sane might well be in catching the appearance of David Bowie in the opening credits of Watchmen (reviewed here!) (he is in his Aladdin Sane persona there . . .).

With only ten tracks coming in just over forty minutes, Aladdin Sane is a "glam rock" outing by David Bowie. For those unfamiliar with "glam rock," this seems to be the genre of rock and roll popularized in the '70's that was primarily guitar-driven and revolved around personas within the songs and on the stage. In other words, performers and artists assumed characters and on the albums like Aladdin Sane that listeners are left with, there is often a story. This one, which Bowie has described as "Ziggy Stardust visits America" would then be about a spaceman who journeys to the United States, but the lyrics are nowhere near so cohesive. Instead, Bowie's songs comment on sex ("The Jean Genie," "Drive-In Saturday") and violence ("Panic In Detroit") without many lines that clearly or overtly describe the Aladdin Sane character.

Still, this is largely a David Bowie work. He wrote nine of the ten songs, the last being a cover of the Stones' song "Let's Spend The Night Together," which he rearranged. Bowie provides the lead vocals on all of the tracks and he is credited with a co-producer credit as well. Notable on Aladdin Sane is that Bowie plays four instruments on his own: guitar, harmonica, keyboards and saxophone. Unfortunately, this also means that Bowie must bear the blame of the excessive keyboard solo on the single Aladdin Sane which begins to sound like Bowie randomly hitting notes after its first minute!

That said, most of the album is upbeat rock and roll that sounds good, if a bit monolithic. Indeed, while Bowie has a great creative streak, Aladdin Sane is not one of the albums that exhibits it well. Instead, most every song is a pretty traditional rock and roll track, dominated by guitars and percussion. And songs like “Aladdin Sane” which do strike out with more keyboard and piano melodies are often hypnotic and dull. Even the single "The Jean Genie" is not one of the stronger Bowie melodies in the artist's pantheon. Recognizable? Yes. Complex or even aurally interesting, far less so. Even some of the more meaningful songs, like "Time," do not have recognizable melodies.

In other words, Aladdin Sane has a few good singles, but the album is much more rocky and unmemorable than most fans would like to admit.

Even so, Bowie's vocals are amazing. David Bowie has a smooth, wonderful voice and on Aladdin Sane, he stretches his comfortable range well beyond what most fans would expect of him. He goes higher on the track Aladdin Sane and the force with which he delivers lines in "The Jean Genie" and "Cracked Actor" might surprise listeners with how they remain songs, not just chants. Similarly, "The Prettiest Star" illustrates a vocal quality that he seldom exhibits on his more "pop" outings. Vocally, there is much to recommend on Aladdin Sane, though even there the album is far from perfect. "Panic In Detroit" is no more interesting in the vocals than it is in the instrumentals and as a result, it is repetitive and dull either way.

This leaves the lyrics and here Aladdin Sane is a conflicted mix of genius and complicated, something that may easily be said about David Bowie! The album opens with a decent story song, "Watch That Man," which goes a long way to establishing the tone of "Bowie" (if not Ziggy Stardust) in America. Poetically, the song is occasionally droll with expository lines like "Shaky threw a party / That lasted all night / Everybody drank a lot of something nice / There was an old fashioned band / Of married men / Looking up to me / For encouragement / It was so-so / The ladies looked bad / But the music was sad / No one took their eyes off Lorraine / She shimmered and she strolled / Like a Chicago moll / Her feathers looked better and better / It was so-so" ("Watch That Man"). The lines are not poetically wonderful, whatwith obvious rhymes like "bad" and "sad," but Bowie sells them through the music and he pulls the song off well. Moreover, what doesn't work as a poem works just fine as a song because so few people ever sing about such things as inane parties.

Then, though, there is Bowie's masterwork "Time." Despite some "la la la's" that pop up in the song, the track is poetically insightful on its subject, something few artists ever bother to sing about. Here, though, Bowie encapsulates time perfectly when he sings "Time - He's waiting in the wings / He speaks of senseless things / His script is you and me boys / Time - He flexes like a whore / Falls wanking to the floor / His trick is you and me, boy . . . The sniper in the brain, regurgitating drain / Incestuous and vain, / And many other last names / I look at my watch it say 9:25 and I think / 'Oh God I'm still alive'" ("Time"). Bowie's diction on the song alone puts him well above so many artists of his time and since!

Finally, Bowie is able to use his words to do more than tell stories. He is adept at capturing emotions. He is able, for example, to close the album with a memoir of love and loneliness when he writes and sings "And when the clothes are strewn / Don't be afraid of the room / Touch the fullness of her breast. / Feel the love of her caress / She will be your living end / She'll come, she'll go. / She'll lay belief on you / But she won't stake her life on you / How can life become / Her point of view" ("Lady Grinning Soul"). Bowie writes lines that have universal appeal for anyone who has awoken alone or with a loved one after a dream and Bowie's sound and energy supports multiple interpretations of many of his songs, like "Lady Grinning Soul."

But ultimately, most of the album is pretty standard rock and roll and for an artist as creative as David Bowie, we expect more. This is certainly not his worst, but he has done better and there is even a better version of this one.

The best song is "Time," the low point is "Panic In Detroit."

For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Man Who Sold The World
Hunkey Dory
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Diamond Dogs
Christiane F. Soundtrack
Let's Dance
Labyrinth Soundtrack
Never Let Me Down
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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