David Bowie: Space Oddity (40th Anniversary Edition)

David Bowie
Space Oddity (40th Anniversary Edition)

The truly odd thing about Space Oddity — not the first Bowie album, but the first one that mattered — is just how grounded it actually is. Even continuing to call the album Space Oddity, when that was neither its original title, nor does it ever appear on this double-disc reissue as anything other than a song name, seems awkward. The only valid reason to continue calling it Space Oddity, a name given to it years after its release for the simple fact that the song “Space Oddity” was such a tremendous success and would be recognizable to the average consumer, is to differentiate it from Bowie’s first self-titled album. Otherwise, it makes more sense as, simply, “David Bowie“.

This much becomes especially clear once you hear the rest of the album, a collection of songs that owes far more to the artists who were Bowie’s contemporaries and influences at the time than any sort of celestial inspiration. Despite what we would eventually come to know of Bowie, whose ever-shifting personae would become legendary, who had a tendency for seeming something other than human, Space Oddity shows few hints of anything truly larger than life, save for, perhaps, the title track.

And yet, there’s even a problem with that title track. The liners relate with no small amount of humor the tale of Tony Visconti, Bowie’s on-again-off-again collaborator and producer who worked on the majority of Space Oddity, and who also refused to have anything to do with the title track. “I’m not doing that, it’s terrible” are Visconti’s words (as related by Bowie in a quote in the liners), and when you hear the rest of the album, you start to see that despite the immense success of the song, he may have had a point. When you put “Space Oddity” next to a screed on misdirected authority like “Cygnet Committee” or an ode to lost love like “Letter to Hermione”, it sounds a bit precious and far too literal. While it wasn’t a response to the moon landing, it was very much inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and sounds, at its root, like too literal a reflection of the common anxiety over space travel. Even the space-shuttle-as-tin-can metaphor seems trite in retrospect.

Gus Dudgeon’s willingness to give in to the epic aspirations of Bowie and his song combined with Bowie’s own confident vocal performance pushed the song far beyond its frame, and the application of hindsight makes the song feel like a career-defining performance. That it’s a glossy superficiality seems a moot point.

And so, the rest of the album — because there is a rest of the album — is not half bad, even if it’s not up to the level of Bowie’s best. The song with the unfortunate task of following “Space Oddity”, in particular, is fantastic. “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” goes from strummy folk singing to chaotic, harmonica-driven rock ‘n roll almost without notice, and even the most casual Bob Dylan fan might raise their eyebrow at the similarity in styles between the song and the artist that certainly helped to inspire it. “Cygnet Committee” is the epic that the album should have been remembered for, a seemingly ordinary (if tuneful) song taken to another level by a bitter coda detailing the betrayal and loneliness that power can inspire. “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud”, with all its orchestral pomp and soaring refrains, likely had far more autobiographical intent than “Space Oddity” despite what the future would come to accept. Even the final track, for all of the accusations of “Hey Jude” copycatting thrown its way, is a great way to go out, all love, happiness, and enough good vibes to make you want to flip the record and start all over again.

Where Space Oddity fails is in a place that Bowie didn’t really learn to write until much later in his career: the arena of personal relationships. “Letter to Hermione” and “An Occasional Dream”, for all their good intentions, are little more than glorified high school poetry, with “I know you’re with him but you should be with me” sentiments and enough sap to fossilize a bear. As nice as it is that these quiet, reflective moments break up some of the more boisterous and emphatic ones, it would be years before Bowie could turn lovelorn insecurity into art.

The second disc of this 2009 reissue does what any such second disc should: it amplifies the listener’s appreciation of the first. The alternate takes, BBC performances, and single-only tracks to be found on the second disc provide looks at the way the album could have turned out, and they’re a surprisingly interesting bunch.

The first voice we hear on the second disc isn’t even Bowie’s, as a matter of fact — it’s that of John Hutchinson, his writing and playing partner for the demos that would become Space Oddity. In the demo of the song that would make him famous, Hutchinson and Bowie play the parts of Ground Control and Major Tom respectively, and the two-man acoustic treatment (with some primitive electronic tinkery thrown in for good measure) is quite jarring when you’re familiar with the original, though it’s just as surprising how little of the song’s structure changed from demo to final recording.

While interesting, though, the demos are hardly as vital as alternate takes like the single version of “Memory of a Free Festival”, which adds guitars and drums to great effect, somehow making it even more dramatic even as it is also more conventional. An unorchestrated version of “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” is just as interesting — as a B-side to the “Space Oddity” single, it was a perfect counterpoint to the drama of the A-side, though the orchestral take certainly fits better on the album. As far as the rare tracks, it’s nice to have “London Bye Ta-Ta” and BBC take of “Let Me Sleep Beside You” in the context of Space Oddity, but the real treasure here is “Conversation Piece”, widely available for the first time since the Ryko version of Space Oddity, which contains some of the most aching, pained lyrics Bowie’s ever written, appropriately hidden under a mid-tempo lite-country shell.

Space Oddity is often derided as one of the weaker Bowie albums, especially given the notoriety of its title track, but that designation is as much a function of expectation as it is an objective measure of quality; the song “Space Oddity” sets up certain parameters for what to expect from the album, and then the rest of the disc mostly shoots those down. Despite such incongruity, Space Oddity remains a landmark in the Bowie canon, especially as it offers a glimpse at a man transitioning into the artist we’ve come to know; its reissue treatment reinforces this transition and development, and instantly becomes the version of Space Oddity to buy, for Bowie newcomers and diehards alike.

RATING 8 / 10
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