David Bowie: Space Oddity (1969)
The title is the source of some confusion; it was originally released as simply David Bowie in the UK (despite that being the title of Bowie's first and perhaps best-forgotten 1967 debut album); as Man of Words, Man of Music in the US; and then later re-titled Space Oddity when the title track was re-released a couple years later as a single. (And I'll go with that one here, to avoid confusing it with 67's David Bowie, about which I would have very different things to say -- "Uncle Arthur," anyone?)
The album is a fascinating mix of folk, rock and prog, with only hints of the more electric glam sound that Bowie would begin championing on the follow-up and particularly on Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. And despite its weak critical standing, I think a lot of it is pretty excellent -- or at least personally effecting. I bought this in a frenzy of Bowie exploration as a young teenager, and while the later stuff obviously jumped out at me, this one had a more intimate feel that allowed me to connect with it in a way that his better, later albums did not (aside from maybe Hunky Dory, which revisits some of the more restrained motifs found here).
Sure, there's the title track. Not much needs to be said there. But there's so much more on the record. It's followed by "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed," as great a track as any in his stunning 70s catalog, opening with a mellow acoustic jangle that sounds like a continuation of "Space Oddity," only to quickly shift into a rousing, upbeat number with a Bo Diddley beat; it would've made a great addition to his live set, but for whatever reason Bowie ignored this album for the next 40 years, title track aside. "Letter to Hermione" is lovely, while "Cygnet Committee" is a weird, sprawling bit of prog rock, at times more early Genesis than Bowie, but thoroughly compelling. "Janine" is catchy, straightforward folk-rock; "An Occasional Dream" is another gorgeous ballad, folky prog that again draws comparisons to early Genesis (with flutes!); and "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" is an over-the-top opus, managing to squeeze his early British twee stylings, folk, and sprawling prog into just under 5 minutes of orchestrated weirdness. The album closes out with the lengthy "Memory of a Free Festival," as close as Bowie would come to outright psychedelia, a tune reminiscent of Donovan's "Atlantis" with a long opening narration, and then an extended, sweeping "Atlantis"/"Hey Jude"-styled refrain.
There's another nice, folky piece, less essential, called "Conversation Piece," contained on the original album but deleted on some later reissues.
The album was re-released this year with a new mix by longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, and while I haven't done a close side-by-side comparison, it's clear in spots that he has punched up the guitars and given it a more dynamic feel, more like Ziggy and the later glam albums; I'm listening to it right now and it sounds fucking fantastic. (You can buy it on its own or as part of the recent Conversation Piece box set, which includes the original and VIsconti mixes and a few discs of early demos -- more geared towards fanatics than casual fans.)
Here's the "Space Oddity" video:
Here's that new Visconti mix: