'Watch That Man' kicks the album off. It's a great guitar-driven glam rock song in the same vein as 'Suffragette City'. It sounds very similar in its pattern of verses and choruses, and Bowie's delivery is almost identical. Then again, it is supposed to, being the sequel to Ziggy Stardust (albeit without a storyline). Plus, there is some stylish piano from guest Mike Garson, and the female vocals stand very well with the harder, rockier sound.
Having disposed in a single track of all the folk-induced whimsy he had acquired over the past two years, Bowie changes gear on the title track. 'Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)' may have one of the strangest (full) titles in the business - outside of psychedelic music, that is. The dates in the title refer to Bowie's belief in an impending World War III (the character is 'born' before both WWI and WWII). This is slower, more piano-driven and features some lovely saxophone, played by Brian Wilshaw. In the instrumental section, both combine alternately to produce an excellent piece of avant-garde jazz. The witty title disguises the increasingly unhinged nature of Bowie's lyrics, to the extent that you feel like he is singing about himself.
However masterful these changes of direction may be, they are put to shame by the next track. 'Drive-In Saturday' is a tribute to Bowie's taste for strange concepts driven by the lyrics. The words depict a world where people are having to learn to have sex again by watching old pornography. It's a piece of 'futuristic nostalgia', that is, people in the future longing for the past (presumably, it was an influence on ELO, whose album Time (1981) addresses the same themes). But the success, or brilliance, of this song, does not have to come with an understanding of the lyrics; you can sit there and not comprehend a word Bowie is saying, and yet the chord progression will reel you in. It's a staggering song, jazzy, pop-worthy but also of so much substance.
'Panic In Detroit' is a big step backward on the album. As its title suggests, it is much closer to American rock of the time, and as a result all of Bowie's English charm is drowned out by distortion. The lyrics are as indiscernable as they are uncompelling. Sure, it manages to create a nice rhythm, leading to you to nod your head: but it's bottom heavy, there is nothing coming from Bowie to bolster and conflict with the armour-plated Spiders From Mars.
'Cracked Actor' is, to be perfectly honest, rubbish. It's a combined rip-off of The Rolling Stones (guitars and boring drums) and Bob Dylan (terrible harmonica), while Bowie gurns his lines about an ageing film star having a homosexual encounter. If you can bear this long enough to peer through the pea soup, you might be surprised by its quality. Most, however, will be too frustrated to care because of this song's complacency.
Such blemishes aside, 'Time' is a good way to get the album back on track. While perhaps not as famous as its namesake (released a month earlier by a certain band), it does feature some great lyrics. The most celebrated, Time... falls wanking to the floor serves to intrigue only, while in general they provide a beeline to Bowie's motivation, desiring to change with mind of his impending end. The sniper in the brain/... incestuous and vain provides a fairly good example of this. Where the music is concerned, Garson's piano is thunderous and atmospheric, and Mick Ronson's guitar tragedian, producing a song that would have sat just as well on Diamond Dogs (1974).
'The Prettiest Star' is a trashy, thrashy, self-indulgent piece of nonsense. It's a relic of 1960s doo-wop with its 'bah, bah' backing vocals, with contemporary guitar shoved over the top in an attempt to continue the album's style. Not only that, but it's not original to the album - the single was an unsuccessful follow-up to 'Space Oddity' in 1970, which featured Marc 'T.Rex' Bolan on guitar. It's as if Bowie was so short on time that he just picked the most convenient sounding item out of his back catalogue and shoved it inbetween two throughly decent songs. (The stripped-down acoustic version, found on The Platinum Collection (2005), is a mild improvement).
Maybe "thoroughly decent" is underdoing it. 'Let's Spend The Night Together' is a cover, from The Rolling Stones, so it already has the flavour of the album. But this is miles better than the Stones version. While that was just a snail's-pace R&B workout with lazy work from Mick Jagger, this is a high-speed, high-octane rampage which tears apart your ears and then reassembles them as you jive away. It throws you around the room with the jaunty piano, Ronson's loud distortion acting as a plunger on a stack of dynamite. Mike Woodmansey's work on the drums is brilliant, and with Bowie on the best of form the four-piece create a piece of musical ecstacy.
'The Jean Genie', the first single to be culled from the album, is billed as a combination of the R&B hooks of The Yardbirds with the "stylised sleaze" of The Velvet Underground.¹ It features a great riff, executed to perfection by Ronson, and for once the harmonica part on the record doesn't make your toes curl so much that they end up on the other side of your heels. It's a great, thundery piece of pop rock, including a very melodic bass line, something which most pop is without.
What a shame then, that on this most divisive of albums, Bowie chooses to end with something as stupid as 'Lady Grinning Soul'. This song's comparison with a Bond theme (and the similarities are obvious) don't serve to elevate it; instead it is reduced to cult status for some, mediocrity for the rest. It drags Bowie down to the same level as Duran Duran and, for heaven's sake, Madonna. Who the hell wants to bracketed alongside them?! To take a more objective criticm, the production is terribly skewed towards the Franz Liszt-induced piano, drowning Bowie out at almost every turn.
Bowie described Aladdin Sane as "Ziggy goes to America", on account of the fact that all the songs were written while the band was on the road.² That might help to explain both why the album was very popular in America, and why the press have always been in two minds about it. For some, it is a great departure from the glam rock era; for others, it is an album with style but no substance, the musical equivalent of David Cameron. The best way to pass judgement on it is to compare it with its predecessor. The character may be effectively the same, but Aladdin Sane has no overlying concept - it's not a rock opera. But it's better than Ziggy Stardust because musically it has a lot more substance and variety, even at the cost of being a more united album. It may not have a concept, but then the storyline on Ziggy Stardust was so convoluted that it became lost in the melody. Here, the melody is within set boundaries which allow the lyrics to burst forth and create something a lot more memorable, and a lot more enduring.
3.80 out of 5
¹ Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray, Bowie: An Illustrated Record (London: Avon Books, 1981), p.52 - cited in 'The Jean Genie', http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jean_Genie. Accessed on December 9 2007.
² Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie (London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2000), pp.281-3 - cited in 'Aladdin Sane', http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aladdin_Sane. Accessed on December 8 2007.