Monday, April 25, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: Hunky Dory (1971)

In the wake of David Bowie's recent passing, Schenkerian Gang Signs has declared 2016 to be the Year of Bowie. To commemorate, we will be exploring all twenty-seven of Bowie's studio albums at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Along the way, we will explore the gamut of Bowie's achievements, from granular musical analysis to broader notions of artistic trajectories. 

My original plan for the Year of Bowie was to tackle one album every second week or so to ensure that I made it through the whole discography before the year ended. Alas, then life intervened and now I find myself behind, despite the fact that I did start giving Hunky Dory some serious listenings to over a month ago. And part of why I think I found it tricky to write about was that this album felt like the songs I most associate with Bowie: 'Changes,' 'Life on Mars,' 'Oh! You Pretty Things', 'Queen Bitch' (my previous knowledge of Bowie was clearly influenced by the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic). And perhaps my prior knowledge of these songs led to my procrastination in writing about them. This is, in my view, peak Bowie. Vintage Bowie. Definitive Bowie. What more could you say about them? What more could I possibly say about them? How could my listening experience be enhanced by hearing them again?

(This isn't to detract from their power as songs. My most likely sing-along song in the car is 'Life on Mars.' I sometimes sing it to my dog. He doesn't seem to appreciate it. And let's just take a minute to acknowledge that Bowie's gesture at the word 'spit' is one of the great moments in music video. I also try to imitate this gesture when I sing this to my dog. He doesn't seem interested in it either.)

But what stuck with me from this album was less the songs I've heard so many times and instead the moments that were new to me, and perhaps for that reason, more insightful. Like the introductory instrumental section of 'Eight Line Poem,' which vaguely reminded me of the piano exit from 'Layla' and made me want to write about unexpected wistful piano moments in music ca. 1971, the year that both of these songs appeared. In fact, the way in which 'Oh! You Pretty Things' elides directly into 'Eight Line Poem' makes it feel as though it is a piano/guitar exit at first.

Or the part of 'Quicksand' that dissolves into wordless melody that doesn't quite harmonically resolve as it should. This section has been stuck in my head for the past couple of days, much as the guitar duet in 'All the Madmen' stayed with me when I was listening to The Man Who Sold the World.

Or the final song from the album, 'The Bewlay Brothers,' which Bowie claimed was comprised of nonsense lyrics, but is very melodic and beautiful and also wistful. Kind of like piano exit music from around this era, but with a folk-ish sound. In fact, it doesn't feel all that far removed from contemporary music that imitates folksong, à la Passenger; it's surprising that this song hasn't been covered recently by anyone (from what I can see), as I have a feeling it would continue to draw an audience today. 

Anyway, who needs lyrics? They're only really required when you are singing 'Life on Mars' to your dog.

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