Hunky Dory (Virgin 521899)
Is it possible that every album released in 1971 was damn near perfect? Ram, What's Going On, Paint America Love, Caetano Veloso, Madman Across The Water, and Bowie's Hunky Dory, an album I could listen to hundreds of times with pleasure, and probably have.
This was before Bowie started getting all sci-fi, and before his glam fixation really took hold. There's a lot of glam spirit to the songs on Hunky Dory, but musically they're more along the lines of the Stones' country-rock of the same era. The fey cabaret rockin' of "Oh! You Pretty Things" and "Changes" are indicative of Bowie's style at this time lush with strings, tight rock drums, and Bowie's voice right up front, giving possibly his best vocals ever.
And those who have been scared off by his late-period wanderings, by and large devoid of any good songs, are immediately pointed toward Hunky Dory as a strong testament to Bowie the songwriter. Rarely has a rock performer found theyself in such an impressive breadth of inspiration these are some of his best-ever songs, and he wrote all but one of 'em.
He's had some great albums through the years, and made some great singles, but few of his albums are as wall-to-wall great pop as this one, from the opening piano into of "Changes" straight through to the contemplative acoustic intensity of "The Bewlay Brothers." It's an album that really should be celebrated more, though it may be a bit too "British" for a lot of American rock critics.
Well, call me a traitor, but I don't mind them redcoats so much, especially when they've got songs like the indestructible "Life on Mars?," which begins as small as a snickering schoolboy and ends as enormous as a roaring crowd.
"Kooks," as kooky as its title, is a charming and actually sweet little song, quite unexpected and demonstrating Bowie's sense of humor, which is rarely seen these days on his studio work.
Side 1 ends with "Quicksand," probably my favorite Bowie song ever, just an amazing tour-de-force of wonderful lyrics, great melody, gorgeous arrangement, dreamy harmonies, and straight-on brilliant singing. It's a very deep capper to one of the best "Side 1's" ever.
Side 2 isn't as strong (couldn't be), developing the baroque cabaret pop into a series of portrait songs: "Andy Warhol," "Song For Bob Dylan," "Queen Bitch" (about Lou Reed), and "The Bewlay Brothers."
These songs get away from the directness of Side 1's lyrics and approach the artiness you associate with David Bowie, but it remains consistent and honest, not like some of the albums that would follow (see Diamond Dogs if you want pretentious Bowie horseshit).
"Song For Bob Dylan" is a nice acknowledgement of Bowie's fandom of Dylan, while done in Bowie's style, which, in this moment, was infinitely more exciting than anything you'd find in Dylan's world. Mick Ronson's guitar, throughout the album, but here in particular, helps the tune sail on mightily. "Queen Bitch" is probably the weakest link, though it's hardly a bad song just that Bowie himself outwrote it with "Suffragette City."
The most recent CD reissue is sparkling great sound, crystal remastering job. Virgin has axed the bonus tracks found on Ryko's earlier issue, but restored the packaging elements, making for a much better experience overall. Hopefully they will issue a set that includes all the bonus tracks cut from the individual CDs.
Hunky Dory is Bowie's most honest album, probably his most memorable, and at the very least his most hummable. Ziggy Stardust was bigger, Heroes more daring, Low probably a finer achievement, but in terms of creating a magnificent, hugely personal work of real permanence here it is.
His words enrapture here as on no other Bowie album, and the strings drive straight to your heart and pull you upward with all the drama these cabaret tunes call for.
Rufus Wainwright should make an album this good. He's about the only other person who could create anything even close to this, a most unique album from a performer who always specialized in being unique.
Review by Chillykid