This is the first of my pieces on David Bowie's 1970s albums, which I'm listening to and simultaneously reading about in Peter Doggett's book The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s.
To someone who's main exposure to Bowie has been through singles compilations, this album, recorded in 1970, is something of a surprise. The glam-rock which made Bowie's name had yet to arrive, and we find ourselves very much at the tail end of the 1960s scene. The themes which would become Bowie trademarks: sexuality ("The Width of a Circle", "She Shook Me Cold"), violence ("Running Gun Blues"), madness ("All The Madmen"), the occult ("The Supermen") and dystopian futures ("Saviour Machine") are all present. The melodies themselves, however, are very much in the psychedelic rock/hard rock/acid rock/heavy rock which is pretty standard for the time. Going by Doggett's account, Bowie was never fully invested in the album, and much of it was created by other members of the production team
The one exception to this is the title track, which looks back in capturing something of the alienated deep-space chill of Bowie's only previous hit single "Space Oddity" (1969), and fits with the Bowie of the future in that it demonstrates his ability to give you something which sounds like nothing you've heard before. It's perhaps also the only song on the album in which the melody really matches the lyrical content. The latter is perhaps the bleakest thing this album has to offer, acting as a prescient commentary on the 1960s counter-culture, and perhaps on Bowie's fears about himself and his identity: everything you believe in is going to be sold out - and you're going to be the one who does it. Troubling stuff for someone who was only 23 when this was written and recorded, but we all have our moments.
So, this isn't destined to be one of my favourite albums, but it's an interesting look at the background from which Bowie's most successful period emerged. Next up: Hunky Dory.