Sunday, November 13, 2011

Unmemorable Bowie: The Man Who Sold The World Is Entirely Forgettable!

The Good: Good voice, Title track
The Bad: SHORT!, Musically unimaginative, Lyrically limited
The Basics: A surprisingly lackluster album, The Man Who Sold The World has the title track, but little else going for it.

My wife is a huge David Bowie fan. When I began the month long exploration of Bowie's music, she proudly bragged that she had all of Bowie's recordings and while we ended up weeding out a slew of scratched discs in her collection (she had backed them up with virtual copies on her computer) we ended up popping a hole in her assertion regardless. When my library got in The Man Who Sold The World for me, she frowned, went through her collection and we discovered I had one she never got in!

There is now, still, a hole in my partner's collection. The reason is simple; after listening to the album with me on high repeat for several days, she shook her head, said, "The title track is the best song on there" and scoffed at burning any of the other songs onto her computer. I can think of no better way of describing how little impression the album The Man Who Sold The World leaves listeners with than that. A die-hard Bowie fan who prides herself on having all Bowie was willing to let this one go. I wish that's all I had to write in consideration of this bland outing by David Bowie.

With only nine songs occupying 40:58, The Man Who Sold The World is a particularly unambitious c.d. by David Bowie. While Bowie did write all of the songs on it and he provided the lead vocals for every song, it is not the best reflection on his many talents. In addition to singing all of the lead vocals, Bowie plays guitar and stylophone on various tracks. However, he was not involved in the production of the album, which means that his creative control over the album was far from absolute. Those of us who are inclined to give Bowie the benefit of the doubt might well blame the monolithic style of the songs on this album on producer Tony Visconti.

Instrumentally, this is one of the most monotonal Bowie albums in existence. Considering the title track of the album; it is murky, bass filled and while it has little crescendos, it is basically a somewhat contemplative, plodding track that lilts along. Imagine The Man Who Sold The World without the percussion or the grand little ups that define the bridge into the refrain. That murky, slightly melodic, but hum-in-the-back-of-your-head sound is what the rest of the tracks sound like. To be sure, they sound good while listening to them, but "The Man Who Sold The World" (the single) is easily the most distinctive track on the album, in part because it DOES contain the distinctive percussion and the thematic crescendos.

Similarly, Bowie's vocals are more muted and mumbled compared to the basslines. The title track, again, is where he stretches his range most and the rest of the album he remains safely within a quiet lower range. He hardly enunciates his lyrics and he presents the songs more like the lines he is singing are an afterthought. This, too, might be why every track outside the classic title track are forgettable.

This is not to say that Bowie arrived at The Man Who Sold The World without any lyrical talent; far from it. The problem is, he does not sing his songs as if he believes he is a decent writer and he allows the songs to be produced over so that his natural voice is not in evidence nearly enough to impress listeners. Take, for example "All The Madmen." While musically repetitive and fairly dull with is seasickness inducing swells, it is still fairly well written as an engaging musical storysong with its lines "Here I stand, foot in hand, talking to my wall / I'm not quite right at all / Don't set me free, I'm as helpless as can be / My libido's split on me / Gimme some good 'ole lobotomy" ("All The Madmen"). While some of the rhyme schemes may be tired, the concept is an interesting one and Bowie still manages to use a pretty impressive level of diction.

And on The Man Who Sold The World, the best songs are storysongs or songs where Bowie wrestles with expressing genuine human emotions. Unfortunately, some of his poetry works better as poetry where one sits and considers it for literary analysis as opposed to as songs. Principle among these is "After All," where Bowie's message is dense and takes a lot of attention to get to. Indeed, complicated with the music, it is almost impossible to discern the meaning from his poem "I sing with impertinence, shading impermanent chords, with my words / I've borrowed your time and I'm sorry I called / But the thought just occurred that we're nobody's children at all, after all / Live till your rebirth and do what you will, Oh by jingo / Forget all I've said, please bear me no ill, Oh by jingo" ("After All").

But as Bowie's classic rock tended to tell stories, there are a few moments of lyrical treats for those who have the fortitude to listen to this album more than once for the experience. "Running Gun Blues" contains a musical protagonist who can barely be called a protagonist as he brags "I count the corpses on my left, I find I'm not so tidy / So I better get away, better make it today / I've cut twenty-three down since Friday / But I can't control it, my face is drawn / My instinct still emotes it." The song may be creepy and violent, but at least it is interesting in the lines Bowie wrote and different from virtually anything else before or since.

Unfortunately, the musical style is a pretty generic, if murky, guitar-driven rock and roll sound that was not terribly innovative for its day and is virtually unlistenable to now. And if you don't believe me, believe the fan who wouldn't keep it!

The best track is "The Man Who Sold The World," the others are just mush anyway, so there is little point in picking out a weak link.

For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Hunkey Dory
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Diamond Dogs
Christiane F. Soundtrack
Let's Dance
Labyrinth Soundtrack
Eart hl i ng
Best Of Bowie (1 Disc version)
The Best Of Bowie (2 Disc version)


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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