David Bowie’s lyrics for ‘Changes’ perfectly capture the fresh-faced vigour and optimism with which he approached his 1971 album, Hunky Dory. While it was is far more sonically restrained than its predecessor, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, Bowie’s second album marked a giant leap forward in his songcraft.
Trading in the psychoactive sonic landscapes and folk balladry for something sharper, sparser, and more piano-centric, Hunky Dory contains some of the greatest songs Bowie ever put to tape. As the first of his albums to go platinum, it continues to evoke the symphonic warmth and novelistic insight that made it such a hit when it was first released all those years ago, establishing itself as the definitive Bowie album that all other Bowie albums have been compared to since.
The strength of Hunky Dory lies largely in its ambition and optimism. As Bowie noted in an interview following its release, the album benefited from a renewed understanding of songwriting as an artisanal craft. “I went to the States for three months to promote The Man Who Sold The World and when I returned I had a whole new perception on songwriting,” Bowie later revealed. “My songs began changing immediately. Secondly, by the time I came back I had a new record label, RCA, and also a new band. America was an incredible adrenaline trip. I got very sharp and very quick. Somehow or other I became very prolific. I wanted to write things that were more… immediate”.
A change of scene was exactly what Bowie needed. Having spent the last few years establishing himself in the UK, his world had started to feel incredibly small. In a sense, he’d grown too close to his own existence to analyse it in any depth – a kiss of death for any songwriter. By unstitching himself from his London digs and travelling to America, Bowie was able to do what he did best: steal. As Woody Woodmansey, Bowie’s drummer during the Hunky Dory days said of him: “Even in the early days, there was more to David than just being a songwriter, rock ’n’ roll star thing. You could sense he had a vision. It came from his ability to soak up an area of music if he liked it, have an understanding of it and then create with it”.
Ironically, while Bowie’s time in America saw him pick up songwriting tricks by some of the nation’s most important musicians, it indirectly resulted in him embracing a quainter, identifiably British sound. Indeed, where The Man Who Sold The World is speckled with Zappa-esque lead guitar lines and Greenwich Village introspection, Hunky Dory, in retrospect, seems imbued with a more European sensibility – the ornamented piano arrangement on ‘Life On Mars’ evoking the baroque trills of Bach’s Goldberg Variations – while references to everything from “the Norfolk Broads” to “America’s tortured Brow” paint a picture of the parochial British nation in the midst of an identity crisis.
Bowie, however, seems to stand above it all. In ‘Eight Line Poem’ for example, he dials back the cultural analysis to paint an intimate portrait of himself stumbling into parenthood. His wife Angie had just given birth to their first son, Duncan, so when Bowie sings: “The tactful cactus by your window. Surveys the prairie of your room The mobile spins to its collision,” we see a parent touched by the innate curiosity of his newborn child; a curiosity which clearly rubbed off on Bowie himself.
Looking back, it’s understandable why so many critics celebrated Hunky Dory for foreshadowing Bowie’s multifaceted genius. It lay the foundation for the likes of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘The Thin White Duke’, but, rather than fixating on one alter ego, in Hunky Dory, Bowie wears innumerable masks, adopting a different persona for practically every single song. One moment he is the bohemian intellectual, the next, the warm and loving father. While many rank Bowie records on how well he inhabited a certain alter-ego, for me, Hunky Dory excels precisely because he is dipping in and out of character; testing the water with excitable glee.