“Some say the view is crazy/But you may adopt another point of view. So if it’s much too hazy/You can leave my friend and me with fond adieu,” sings David Bowie in The Man Who Sold The World, thus supplying a most cogent critique of his own recent work — Bowie’s music offers an experience that is as intriguing as it is chilling, but only to the listener sufficiently together to withstand its schizophrenia.
Bowie deals throughout this second album in oblique and fragmented images that are almost impenetrable separately but which convey with effectiveness an ironic and bitter sense of the world when considered together. His unhappy relationship with the world is traced to his inability to perceive it sanely: “I’d rather stay here with all the madmen/Than perish with the sadmen roaming free … I’m quite content they’re all as sane as me.”
Producer Tony Visconti’s use of echo, phasing, and other techniques on Bowie’s voice to achieve a weird and supernatural tone reminiscent of a robot (which is to imply not that Bowie sings mechanically, but that his voice is oddly metallic to begin with) serves to reinforce the jaggedness of Bowie’s words and music, the latter played in intimidatingly heavy fashion by an occasionally brilliant (note Mick Ronson’s guitar break in “She Shook Me Cold”) quartet guided by Visconti’s own maniacally sliding bass.
In an album that, save for the impotently sarcastic “Running Gun Blues,” is uniformly excellent, at least four tracks demand special attention: “Saviour Machine” demonstrates that Bowie far from exhausted his talent for quietly moralistic rock sci-fi in his earlier “Space Oddity.” The almost insufferably depressive “After All” contains the strangest refrain perhaps ever conceived — a haunting, mantric “Oh, by jingo.” “The Width of the Circle” is both a hallucination with religious overtones that recall both Dante and Adam and Eve and a sound of enormity. And “She Shook Me Cold” contains some of the most bizarre sexual imagery ever committed to vinyl: “She sucked my dormant will,” or “She took my head, smashed it up/And left my young blood rising.”
You ambitious young film makers out there contemplating a brilliantly evocative psychologically-oriented film about despair, consider Kevin Ayers and then eventually decide on David Bowie to do the score.