There’s a really interesting article about this album on the AV Club. Space Oddity already had the seeds of Bowie’s path sown, but this album cemented it. I love the story about how his rock band mates weren’t sure what to expect playing with a folk singer, but obviously Bowie is just a great songwriter. Whether it’s rock or folk, it’s good.
From the first song, The Width of a Circle, you can hear that they’re really a tight band. The bass is fantastic and really pins the song down, especially during that little walk down it does at around the five minute mark when the song loosens up a bit. I guess that’s Tony Visconti. I mean, this is basically like a prog song.
Mick Ronson goes hard as well. It’s not exactly written in that AV Club article, but I read once where he was really instrumental in figuring out the sound of the album. In any case, his presence IS instrumental, because he contributes a whole lot to the heaviness. He’s especially great on She Shook Me Cold. I read that this got some comparisons to Led Zeppelin, but his guitar style and sound doesn’t sound all that much like Jimmy Page (it sounds more like Brian May of Queen to me, if I have to make a comparison), and the songwriting is so different from theirs.
You can feel that this is much more of a band effort though. Throughout the album, this full band feel is a part of what makes this album feel so together and fulfilling. The drums, the guitar, and the bass all have a presence as big as Bowie himself. I read that there was a lot of jamming involved when making this album, and you can hear that quality in Width of a Circle but also just the opening of Saviour Machine, which I like a lot for the solo and the guitar tone.
All the Madmen has always been one of my favorites. I like the lyrics and the presentation of it. It’s got a lot of quirky instruments and a killer melody. It’s menacing and sympathetic at the same time.
Black Country Rock is also really cool, because I’m a big T. Rex fan as well, and he emulates Marc Bolan perfectly. The vocal delivery even when he’s singing normally is great. I love the verses where he’s nimbly jumping over the words. That’s a kind of melody that really works for me, and the guitar riff is hypnotizing as well. Some of Bowie’s vocal delivery on this album is awkward, but it’s interesting even when it’s a little strange at times.
After seven songs of hard rock, it’s kinda strange getting to the title track. It’s a classic, even better than Space Oddity for me. The previous seven songs were more drums/bass/guitar, but the title track is very distinctive. It’s got a saucy latin rhythm, the warbling synth that adds a whole lot of warmth, that amazing percussion instrument that I don’t know the name of – you know the one you scratch with a stick – and just a totally different feel from the rest of the songs on the album. The chorus is out of this world.
This and Hunky Dory are definitely a pair, forming each one half of the sound that would be Ziggy Stardust. It’s so cool revisiting this. I don’t think I had listened to this in years outside of the title track.