Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #20

David Bowie – Aladdin Sane

And so we end our journey through the “best” music of 1973 with David Bowie. This is the third of his albums that I’m writing about, and that would normally concern me. Since what I write is as much memoir as music commentary, I only have so many stories to tell about my connection to any artist. After all, I ran out of things to say about Jeff Beck after one paragraph.

Bowie, chameleon that he was, is the antidote to such woes. Each record (so far) has been so unique, so distinctive from its forebears, that it invites a fresh eye, and the stories just tell themselves. I don’t need to personalise “Aladdin Sane”: I need only to swim in its delights, and the pen takes over.

In places, it’s Bowie embracing his inner pop star, producing crowd-pleasing, danceable music that, after the experimentation of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, invites you to love him. And it works – if you don’t love Bowie after this record, then you probably never will. It’s more accessible even than his much bigger later hits, because those records – especially “Let’s Dance” – are comparatively soulless, the work of a slumming master.

But, because he’s Bowie – or at least 1973-version Bowie – he can’t just make a pop record. Over his radio-friendly melodies he has to lather up off-beat vocalisations, janky pianos, fuzzy guitars, and oddball lyrics. His voice is often low in the mix, fighting against the music.

“Drive-In Saturday” and “The Prettiest Star” are something of a pair, the sound of an early 1960s doo-wop band, their genre slipping into obsolescence as they try to figure what to do next to stay relevant. The latter is more his updated version of such a record, all bop bops and jazzy horns and honky tonk piano, but with the distorted guitars of a garage band reboot. The former has my favourite line on the record: “She’s uncertain if she likes him / but knows she really loves him.”

That piano keeps coming back, including on “Time”, parts of which make me wonder if Tim Curry was trying to channel this version of Bowie in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. A grander, more epic use of the instrument is found in the title track, including a completely unhinged bit of playing around the middle of the song, and the haunted “Lady Grinning Soul”. 

An almost staccato at times cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is playful, not sexy. It’s the Sheldon Cooper version of sexual attraction, so matter-of-fact that it seems carefree when it’s actually laden with mountains of insecurity and confusion. He then does his own take on a Stones tune with “The Jean Genie”, which sounds like a bluesy glam version of southern rock. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the conga drums setting the beat on “Panic in Detroit”.

This one ranks behind “Ziggy” for me, but well ahead of “Hunky Dory”. After over 50 years of people writing and thinking about his work, there is probably nothing much new to be said about Bowie, and if there is, it won’t be me saying it, or at least not yet. Luckily for me, he (probably) won’t reappear in this space until I get to 1976, which buys me some time to think something up.

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