Thursday, January 8, 2009

David Bowie 2: Space Oddity

Technically, Space Oddity is Bowie’s second album, but since nobody paid attention to his first, this is really where the story of his popular persona begins. To make things even more confusing, its original UK title was David Bowie, only slightly set apart by Man Of Words, Man Of Music in the US. Once he became famous it was rereleased with an anachronistic photo and titled after its hit single, so that’s what we’ll call it (despite its availability today as, again, David Bowie). This is also the first time he worked with producer Tony Visconti, who would be involved with some of the better Bowie albums over the years.
“Space Oddity” is still one of those songs that sounds like nothing else, with enough mystery to keep it fascinating today, and a sound that most would mistake for the Spiders three albums later. The 12-string acoustic dominates, with a fitting string arrangement and decent lead guitar. After all his attempts at songwriting throughout the Sixites, here he finally found a character who would endure past a novelty. “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” gets tagged as a Dylan homage, but outside of the title and a few harmonica blasts it goes into generic rock territory for six minutes. (Since 1972 a snippet called “Don’t Sit Down” disappeared from the sequence; it has been restored in the CD era, and is again appended to the end of “Unwashed”.) “Letter To Hermione” is melancholy and relatively brief, and straightforward in its lovelorn sentiment. But “The Cygnet Committee” is just too long, and hard to follow, making it almost a Bowie parody. Which is a shame, since there are segments in its nine minutes that are infectious.
Side two begins with a pair of love songs; first there’s the rocking “Janine”, with its kalimba touches, and then “An Occasional Dream”, another letter to Hermione. The wonderful tale in “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is unfortunately buried beneath an over-the-top yet still picturesque orchestral arrangement. “God Knows I’m Good” is a character study of a shoplifter, shackled to the same Bo Diddley rhythm of “Unwashed”. The side ends with another epic, “Memory Of A Free Festival”, about nothing more mythical than an all-day concert, and works best as a closing chant in the vein of “Hey Jude”.
Whether you call it David Bowie or Space Oddity, it’s still a better debut than his first album. Modern reissues have included two of the best songs of this period that weren’t even on the album proper. The B-side version of “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is preferable to the album version, with only the 12-string, cello and handclaps to keep from getting in the way of the story. “Conversation Piece” is a pleasant if misleading portrait of life in a small city, tucked away on the B-side of the original, slower version of “The Prettiest Star”. “London Bye Ta-Ta” never made it as a 45, but a re-recording of “Memory Of A Free Festival” did, with most of the chant relegated to “Part 2”. (It also sports the first appearance of one Mick Ronson on guitar.) All these, plus a few demos, alternate mixes, BBC sessions and an unrelated Italian lyric for “Space Oddity”, load up the second disc of the album’s 40th anniversary edition.
Just because they could, a brand new mix of the album by Tony Visconti appeared in time to celebrate the album’s 50th anniversary. The most drastic overhaul comes to “Space Oddity”, removing the fade-in as well as the strings. The “Don’t Look Down” segment is gone, while “Conversation Piece” appears on side two right after “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud”. (Apparently it was cut from the original album due to time constraints; god forbid they didn’t include all seven minutes of “Memory Of A Free Festival”.)

David Bowie Space Oddity (1969)—3
1990 Rykodisc: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks
2009 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1990, plus 12 extra tracks
2019 50th Anniversary Mix: “same” as 1969, plus 1 extra track

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