10 December 1971
It’s been a long damn time since I’ve reviewed a David Bowie album on this site, having tackled ★ (Blackstar) and Low in the very early days of Hello, My Treacherous Friends. And since there aren’t a ton of albums with December release dates from which to choose, today seemed like a good day to revisit one of my favorite Bowie albums, Hunky Dory. This is also one of the David Bowie albums that carries the most emotional weight for me, alongside Reality and the aforementioned Blackstar. This record came out three months (almost) after I was born, so we’re both rapidly approaching our fiftieth turn ’round the sun. I daresay Hunky Dory has aged considerably better than I have.
Of course it was going to age better. It is a snapshot, a portrait of the artist as a young man. What a promising young man he was. This is a year before he started slipping into and out of personalities and larger-than-life characters the way some of us slip into a bathrobe or a light jacket. In December of ’71 he was still just David Bowie, a young folk-inspired rock singer (or rock-inspired folk singer) with a couple of albums and some nice singles to his name, but without a hint yet of what he would unleash on the world just six months down the road. David and his band had already started recording sessions for …Ziggy Stardust… in November of ’71, weeks before Hunky Dory hit shelves, and despite how close they are chronologically, there is little-to-no sign of the future space oddity.
If David Bowie’s career could be summed up in a single word… well, it can’t, but if it could, that word might as well be “Changes,” incidentally the first song on the album, its first single, and a declaration of intent. If there was little sign of what was to come, “Changes” at least lets us know that something is coming, some change, some shift, some evolution. “Turn and face the strange,” a sentiment echoed on the next track, “Oh! You Pretty Things,” even more of a statement, lyrically, than “Changes,” but more to the point and less poetic. “Homo-sapiens have outgrown their use… make way for the homo-superior…” Oh, yes, the evolution, the metamorphosis had begun. “They’re the start of the coming race…“
“Eight Line Poem” would seem like a filler track by anyone else. Here, though, it takes a present and introspective turn after the two opening tracks dealing with the world, the future, and the displacement of the current generation. The song locks you into a moment and a place, a sunlit room with a cactus on the sill, a lazy cat. The line that always gets to me in this song is “Will all the cacti find a home?” It has always seemed sad, almost despairing. Over the years it has come to work on many different levels, as well. Are the cacti the ideas and ideals of the next wave of scions as expressed more plainly in “Changes” and “Oh! You Pretty Things?” Are the cacti the children themselves, cast forth into a cruel and uncaring world to fend for themselves? As anchored in place and time as this song’s image is, there is still something adrift, a sensation that segues perfectly into the next song.
The second single on the album, “Life On Mars?” has since become a fan favorite. This lifts off from the quiet, self-contained, sun-washed room of the prior song and sets us floating out among the what-if and could-be. The title itself is a question, the mood is one of nervous motion, the shapes and ideas of the song never solidifying into anything concrete, flitting from one thought, one image to another in a dream state projected on a movie screen. In this song, it is the child who is displaced, as opposed to the preceding generation; she is cast aside in such a way as to suggest that she’s an annoyance, a burden, and in reflecting on such, finds herself bored and boring, reaching for the possibility of something more meaningful and fulfilling.
“Quicksand” reverts to the ideas and themes of the earlier tracks. “I’m not a prophet or a stone-age man / Just a mortal with potential of a superman… I’m living on / I’m tethered to the logic of homo-sapien…” David is out of place in this world, in this time, surrounded by these people; he is a man who should have come about in a more enlightened age. This brings up an interesting bit of sequencing because “Quicksand” is offset from the first four songs by the whimsical love song to Bowie’s son, “Kooks,” and sandwiched between that and “Fill Your Heart,” a song that finds David using a weird, affected voice that reminds me of “The Laughing Gnome” (and not in a good way) over a bouncing, dancing piano line. “Quicksand” clearly belongs with the first part of the record, as does the Lou Reed fantasy of “Queen Bitch.”
Meanwhile, you can take “Kooks” and “Fill Your Heart” and David’s hero-worship tracks, “Andy Warhol” and “Song For Bob Dylan” and slide them in behind the also gnome-like outro of “The Bewlay Brothers,” a song which would make a perfect transition from the heavy, heady material that opens the record to the more playful, lighter material that makes up the bulk of “side 2” of the original release. It’s not that these aren’t good songs. “Kooks” is great in an idyllic, naive sort of way and “…Bob Dylan” and “Andy Warhol” are both excellent but, come on, they exist on the same album as “Changes,” “Life On Mars?” and “Quicksand.” Almost anything is going to pale in comparison with those songs. But I said at the outset that this is one of my favorite Bowie albums, and that’s inclusive of these later songs, not in spite of them.
In so many ways, Hunky Dory was the launchpad for all that came after, though I think that’s probably only apparent in hindsight. David Bowie was already exploring the ideas of mutation and evolution within his songs here. It was only a matter of time before he applied those ideas not just to his music, but to himself as well, becoming the mutation, the evolution that he was singing about. Six months later, it would turn out that there was life on Mars, and it ended up being Spiders, with David Bowie as their ambassador.
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