David Bowie The Man Who Sold The World (1970) REVIEW
David Bowie is a man that has quite carefully made himself a difficult man to describe. On this album he makes no attempt to stray away from the poetic powers he possesses as he crafts a variety of narrators and angles of a world that he himself creates. The album, while utilizing the anonymity of the outlandish simultaneously conveys a world view defined by paranoia and fear of the unknown. It is almost unspeakably brilliant (but I’m going to speak about it anyway.)
I would describe to you the unit that is this band, comprised of: Mick Ronson (guitar, and vocals), Mick Woodmansey (drums, and percussion), Tony Visconti (electric bass, piano, and guitar), Ralph Mace (moog synthesiser) and David Bowie (vocals, guitar, and stylophone) if the power of my measly words could somehow provide any depth of what they were capable of together. Instead I ask that you find a keen description (albeit the polar opposite of concise) of their musicianship in each of the track’s descriptions.
The album opens with “The Width of a Circle:” a sombre and jazzy twang song that jolts awake the listener who is yet unsuspecting of the power of this album: the rebirth that occurs on each song without fail. The song offers raw vocals with heart-felt plummeting vowels that combat the “simple black bird” the narrator mentions, immune to the complexities of its surroundings “happy as can be.” Bowie’s lyrics initiate a taunting vibe that resurfaces throughout the record: he recites inside jokes that refuse to remain merely passive poetry. Bowie succeeds in establishing a surreal sorrow that is only the ominous beginning to an album chock full of desperately communicative tragedy and crooked humour. One could consider the drums punctuation to the undulation of the narrator’s mania – stirred about by the guitar and instrumental composition. The narrator claims that “God took his logic for a ride” but the listener knows for a fact that Bowie is already exercising his immeasurable instrumental genius. The lyrics are delightfully wicked, tainting with a devilish finger the inanimate in an atmosphere purgatorial and pierced with a cryptic pain.
“All The Madmen” is a quintessential track in the history of David Bowie. It bravely complements the dry works on mental illness such as schizophrenia. The song strives to slow down the chaos of the illness Bowie’s brother had suffered with. Each line managing to be a resounding poetry that attempts to cure his aching soul rather than to broadly confront a topic often presented through facts rather than the emotions of the afflicted. The music belongs in a tragic circus: as metal crashes against metal, it becomes a mess of musical crudeness that bolsters the lyrical complexity that lingers fearlessly. The speaker is strangely aware of his circumstances in a stinging contentedness (“all the madmen are all as sane as me.”) The song is impossibility: a construction of nonsense assembled to help the listener learn of a situation which muddles the definition of saneness. It is empathetic with harsh backing music that conveys the horror and foreboding of a suspenseful and suffocating world faced by those who are trapped in the confines of mental illness.
“Black Country Rock” is a significant lift in the record. The guitar and steady jangly drums play along with Bowie’s lyrics discussing a “crazy view.” It is memorable for its energetic musical spurts and rather static visual imagery. The song is a lesson in vagueness, in the “less is more” philosophy that Bowie uses to trigger intrigue into his lyrics and a willing purchase from listeners into his reliably catchy tunes with the bluesy twang he wields so well.
“After All” introduces itself with a romantic but resistant Latin-guitar rhythm. It teases the listener with spare descriptions of figures who blur into a misshapen mass: locked together by their basic humanity and separated by a difference in ability or age. With a use of brass instruments as a respectfully sad tone it provides a view of being disowned that lulls the listener into a submissive acceptance of a negative force. The predominant voice belongs (very cleverly) to the backing vocalists who personify the oppressed (I viewed it as a rally song for the people who suffer from forces such as a dictator in a fictional world filled with pain.) At first listen, one might think the song is about a vision quest: “we’re painting our faces and dressing our thoughts from the skies” brings to mind flighty, almost forgettable flits of joy. But the song makes itself so much more. The narrator describes the little influence he has in the grand scheme of the world, and his non-belonging: “we’re nobody’s children at all.” Bowie butts heads with the narrator by creating lyrics that stick to your ribs (that hold a lot of weight): mainly the surprisingly sad “oh by jingo.” The song is an unresolved resolution, a foreboding. It turns a tragic sphere sideways as it tapers off before an unsuspicious calmness can be enveloped by the zealous gloom of the song’s entirety. It keeps you on your toes, as it discusses a march to apocalypse.
“Running Gun Blues” is an immediately spooky track that clasps thundering tambourine (mimicking a frantic pulse) as Bowie sings in a child’s voice about death. The narrator “promotes oblivion” as he unabashedly tackles the topic of brutal warfare. He describes an addiction to a shameless, power-inducing feeling that comes with taking the lives of others, of taking your future into one’s own hands. Bowie’s feelings on war are irrelevant as the songs delves deep into the fire and passion that belongs with the narrator and the sense of belonging missing in “After All” and a sense of sadness that pervades the record.
“Saviour Machine” places a conspiratorial lens on a grand scale operation and plan devised by a cruel and manipulative government. It drops ideas of plagues and bombs on the unsuspecting masses that live in the song (and in the face of oblivion) and on the other side of the stereo which blares Bowie’s glorious words of a world submerged in a catastrophic inter-dimensional depression. The song is a fantasy that stretches reality while punching it into a mould of tangibility to set off urgency in the listener. It is dooming: the guitar rails on relentlessly with unyielding drums to shape the prophecy of paranoia. Bowie has now revealed himself as startlingly able to create an entire world (which at first mention is innocuously bizarre, and later revealed to be on the precipice of destruction) in the span of a concise four minutes. Not only are the crimes he croons about alarming, the talent behind his tales is unflinchingly present.
“She Shook Me Cold” brings to mind visions of the merciless yet undeniably womanly Lady Macbeth. The music is bass-fueled as it glides under Bowie’s words effortlessly, bringing to life a stark vision of a woman constructed entirely of impossibility: of awareness, and realistic perception (that Bowie, the effortless artist, ironically exaggerates.)It is a smart, multi-dimensional character profile that refuses the listener any subtlety or ignorance of the mysterious woman’s abilities.
“The Man Who Sold The World” is a musically hypnotic relief to the album. It is interesting to hear it amongst the caliber of the album’s other tracks rather than out on its own in a world of briefly described singles. The listener recognizes that it belongs in the atmosphere Bowie has provided on the album. It is lyrically calm and contemplative compared to the other heart-stopping tracks on the album but is nonetheless unsettling. The song provides what some of the others refuse: the feeling of unflinching and imminent doom is slowly released with the intricacies and beauty the song radiates. The song reveals Bowie as human because it proves that he can ask questions in addition to stirring up a plethora of unanswerable ones in the other tracks. It discusses a mysterious man, a mysterious fate but answers a question in humanity and dysfunctional reality (the only kind that can be found in the warping and perception-shifting album.) The song is enigmatic and far from dull but it is (for me, at least) a reminder of the world that the listener has lost touch with in the seven songs before this one. The album in its equally avant-garde surroundings becomes a jagged puzzle piece rammed so as to complete not coherent puzzles, but a non-linear psyche. This psyche has been artistically perturbed to an excessively brilliant degree by a songwriter and a band with intense insight and musical prowess.
“The Supermen” opens with echoes that bounce off cave walls with backing vocals that follow suit. It describes the horrid fates of a mysterious group of men. It beautifully concludes the fleeting fantasy Bowie has described so completely and yet so sparingly. One which intertwines humanity with the alien: insensitive celebrations, the death of gods and the innocent, the march of the apocalypse, the evil and the madness of men. It puts a face on the suffering Bowie has predicted, has prescribed and described so uniquely in each track before it. It personifies a pain that was at first voiced cold, with roots in psychological analysis character work, the narrators of which had mercy that was simply invisible. The song mentions the “Supermen’s” “solemn, perverse serenity” and I am unable to come up with a better description for the album itself.
I’m sure if you were to ask David Bowie himself, the remarkable complexities that he has exorcised within the confines of this album would continue to surprise him – there are a number of subconscious surprises in addition to a variety of staining messages at the forefront. The album is laced generously with the enigma of witchcraft (a worldly fascination) and the hallucinogenic qualities that inhabit the freakiest of fantasies, but as this album shows, emanate from somewhere much more real – from the depths of confused souls, from a hurt heart, from a studious scholar’s brain. I know this album has sparked many a fan’s fandom, and many a songwriter’s creeping envy. For good reason.