Sunday, December 7, 2014

Comedian, Chameleon, Corinthian and Caricature

Today’s formative-album replay: David Bowie, Hunky Dory. Talk about changes. The unique, peripatetic four-decade musical/theatrical career of David Robert Jones has cycled through countless phases, dispensations, styles, and personae, and it has hardly been a linear path from psychedelic folk/pop to glam rock to whatever-you-call-the-Eno-period to neo-soul and beyond. Since I happened to have my first Bowie immersion well after his New Romantic phase (as I recounted before, my conversion text was the early-mid-period live album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars), I was less jarringly aware of just how strange his early-career arc really was, how complete the breaks between periods were--and yet how protean even within those self-identified constraints he could be.

Case in point, this brilliant, brittle, unaccountably mature little record from 1971, sandwiched surprisingly between the blues-rock swoon of The Man Who Sold the World and the galactic-rock breakthrough of The Rise of Fall of Ziggy Stardust etc. How did the guy who’d just swung "The Width of a Circle" and was about to strut to "Suffragette City" make mental and musical space for a record of mostly showtuney ditties--theatrical songs for plays not written? Many sound like throwbacks to his quirky, Anthony Newley-meets-Jacques-Brel early work, but others offer clear templates for the thematic concerns, if not quite the sound, of the heavy-breathing concept albums that were soon to come. And as much as I cherish the sleazy crunch and sweaty urgency of his deepest hard-rock cuts, I've always personally favored the limber, companionable sound of Hunky Dory.

Indeed, it was startling on this relisten to be reminded how sparse and intimate it all sounds, particularly in the mostly untreated vocals. It moves from the cocktail piano boogie/blues of its first few tracks  ("Changes," "Pretty Things/Eight Line Poem") through the cinematic “Life on Mars,” then marches into the solemn guitar strum of the first of a matching pair of side-enders, the sweeping “Quicksand,” which sounds like a to-date career summation, a distillation of Dylan, Brel, and Ray Davies into something unmistakably Bowie. By the time the record reaches “The Bewlay Brothers,” the other strummy side-ender, the chrysalis has sloughed off and a confident new voice is speaking loud and dark and clear.

In between are a clutch of irresistible oddities and novelties--what sounded to me even in my dimly enlightened days like the definitive gay-adoption anthem, “Kooks,” as well as the slightly half-hearted hippie rag “Fill Your Heart”; and a pair of fellow-icon callouts, the deeply strange and mesmerizing “Andy Warhol” (is there any other song in Bowie’s catalog, or anyone’s, that sounds quite like this weird gypsy-guitar singalong?), and the endearingly bold direct address (but not slavish imitation) of “Song for Bob Dylan.”

I might trade the whole record, though, for the sleek, funny, gritty “Queen Bitch,” a deceptively breezy glam snit that is among my favorite-sounding rock songs ever, from its acoustic-alongside-electric guitar to its laughing, talk-singing histrionics, which suggest Lou Reed on uppers. Bowie would soon chase grander ambitions, but to me he reached a career high point with "Queen Bitch's" climax of pique, tunelessly spit at a romantic rival: “Oh God, I could do better than that!” No, he couldn’t.

Original Facebook post here.

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