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David Bowie - The Man Who Sold the World CD (album) cover


David Bowie


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4.02 | 395 ratings

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The Anders
4 stars I realized that the posts in my Bowie thread became very long, so I thought I might as well just post them as proper reviews. So this is what I do now.

The Man Who Sold the World, in my opinion, is the first really great David Bowie album. On David Bowie/Space Oddity (1969) there is a very unique title song, but the rest of that album did not differ that much from what was otherwise released at that time - at least not musically...

With The Man Who Sold the World he seems to be through with following trends set by others, instead trying more to set the tone himself. This was also true when it came to the visual side. For instance he had begun performing in women's clothes - which at the time seems to have been very controversial and causing quite a stir. For people today, the controversy may be a little hard to understand, but I once read he was threatened with a shotgun, just for performing in a dress.

Also on the album cover of the original British release, he is seen in a dress. I have always loved him for doing that, because he clearly challenged the macho ideals of rock, and that itself is very relieving, at least from my point of view. He would continue to play with sexuality and gender norms with his Ziggy Stardust stage persona a few years later.

But all these things would be very hollow if there hadn't been a clear musical and artistic vision, and that is exactly what we get on The Man Who Sold the World. Stylistically, it is quite a change from David Bowie/Space Oddity, from hippy'ish folk rock towards hard rock, and we get the first glimpses of the glam rock sound from albums like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Whereas Space Oddity focused mostly on acoustic guitar, The Man... is all about the electric guitar. Mick Ronson plays a pivotal role here on his first performance on a David Bowie album, and his signature sound is recognized already on the first track, "The Width of a Circle".

The album is sometimes regarded as the birth of glam rock, but there is still an echo of the 60's in the music; perhaps most evident in "She Shook Me Cold" which has a sort of bluesy power trio sound a la the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Cream. Also "After All" with its dreamy, psychedelic feel, has echoes of the 60's.

Composition-wise the songs are becoming more original, but they are not as catchy as the best songs on his later albums. It's one of his less melodic albums; the most melodic song probably being the title track, but that is also characterized by an instantly recognizable guitar riff. But then the music has other qualities. "The Width of a Circle" is basically in two parts with different tempos and time signatures. There is also a small change of time signature in "All the Madmen" as the second chorus begins in 12/8 whereas the rest of the song is in 4/4. On the title track he skips a few beats to get a better flow in the melody (Nirvana, in their version, brought some of the missing beats back, thus making the song sound more regular and taking away some of its quirks, which is why I don't like their version very much).

There are also many fine moments in the production. Favourite parts include the percussion instruments in the title track which add a latin flavour. Then there is the instrumental part in "Saviour Machine" where some keyboard instruments are coming in in the 9th bar, using the stereo spectrum in a creative way. It adds a lot of energy and intensity to the music. And then, perhaps most striking, is the weird recorder riff in "All the Madmen". It sounds totally insane, underlining the song's lyrical content (the recorders reappear in "After All", and later on "Life on Mars?" from Hunky Dory). Also, in "All the Madmen", there is a sudden abrupt break after the first chorus where the music changes mood completely with only some keyboard instruments, and Bowie narrating, but then we go back to the rockband sound with recorders. Another "insane" musical element.

The lyrics are also a thing to behold, and some of them deal with subjects that also occur in later David Bowie albums. "She Shook Me Cold" and "The Width of a Circle" have a clear sexual content, the latter also deals with split personality ("Well I said hello, and I said hello / And I asked "Why not?", and I replied "I don't know"." - this topic of course had already been touched in "Janine" from Space Oddity, and it also foreshadows Bowie's many role playings, for instance with Ziggy Stadust). "Running Gun Blues" is probably a comment on the Vietnam war - the protagonist, if you can call him that, is cold as stone talking proudly about his many killings. The "Supermen" in the final song don't seem very sympathetic either, and they are are "guardians of a loveless isle"?.

I won't pretend I always get what he is trying to say, because many of the lyrics are pretty confusing. But it is hard not to be intrigued by the many idiosynchracies that occur. What about "Please don't believe in me, please disagree with me" (from "Saviour Machine") for instance? A very odd thing to sing.

All in all we have quite a striking album with many musical and lyricals oddities, some of them rather disturbing. But art is not necessarily meant to be pleasant, plus the songs provoke thoughts, however comprehensible or incomprehensible they may be. Because of that, the album keeps fascinating the listener. It is not a masterpiece, because most of the compositions don't seem as mature as those already on the next album, Hunky Dory. But The Man... is still a great album where you keep discovering new dimensions for each listening.

Personal favourite song: "After All".

The Anders | 4/5 |


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