David Bowie’s album Hunky Dory was recorded in 1971, before he became associated with glam-rock and androgyny. What’s important about this record is that it’s an album with a mix of pop styles and lyrics inspired by high and low culture that makes for a decidedly addicting experience. There’s consistent craftsmanship, quality, and an original bounce in every tune. If you’ve never listened to the full album you’ve probably heard the song “Changes”, but don’t expect the other songs to sound like it, or be less enjoyable. Previously, I didn’t particularly like “Changes,” but after hearing it in its original context, there’s something raw and charming that seems representative of the album as a whole: it is music and song-writing first and foremost, which hardly seems like a noteworthy observation because Bowie is so closely associated with the force of his personality and his musical alter-ego Ziggy Stardust and all that.
Each song on this album is like a member of the family that share the same genes but ends up somewhat different. Omit one song and something irreplaceable has been lost, as each song arises from a different emotion and offers different instrumentation. “Andy Warhol” is a tune bolstered by an acoustic guitar with a wicked bounce in it. The lyrics are cheeky and the chorus, with that swinging bass line, is highly addictive. There are electric guitar riffs with distortion (“Song for Bob Dylan”), hot piano riffs (“Fill Your Heart”) and mean bass lines throughout the album. The moods can be as wide apart as “Oh! You Pretty Thing”, (the family’s hip, intellectual undergrad), to the melancholy “the Bewlay Brothers” (the brooding teenager), with “Changes” probably being the grandfather.
If Hunky Dory was the last album Bowie ever made he’d have a legacy as an original, important songwriter with different styles at his disposal, though it would be impossible to predict from this album alone what “Bowie” would come to evoke–the whole Ziggy alter-ego and the various challenges and minor revolutions he’d pose to rock. That said, in hindsight, this album is sufficiently diverse to make Bowie’s future innovations seem plausible. But any larger than life personality in rock and roll must be able to play music first and foremost, or else become an empty sideshow that’s probably a bigger threat to music than it is an advancement. Hunky Dory is a reminder that when stripped of all his eccentricity Bowie was a powerful musician and a compelling songwriter. More than 50 years on, this album can be considered a classic.