The astute reader might recall that 2 months ago I wrote a blog about David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, and my adoration of the man, as an artist, was laid bare. When preparing for this Musical Training Plan, I wanted to try to avoid too many artists I’ve written about before, and I had already decided on Sinatra so I tried to talk myself out of Bowie, but eventually I gave in. Not only was David Bowie an absolutely wonderful musician, but he was a surprisingly good actor as well. Bowie did it all as an actor, sometimes sneakily. From his iconic villainous performance as the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, to his serious portrayals of real figures such as Tesla in Chris Nolan’s Prestige and Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and his voice talents as a random side character in a Spongebob special, the man had range. His range was even more apparent in the world of music where Bowie not only explored and experimented with a variety of genres, but did so as a multi-instrumentalist, producer, singer, and songwriter, nearly always with great results. Over his long and storied career Bowie had a great many highlights, but looking back at his journey from the year 2021, there seems to be a general consensus crown jewel of the Bowie discography. That shining achievement, today’s album for the MTP, is a pseudo-rock-opera, loose concept album, glam rock, proto-punk, album about an androgenous, bisexual, messianic extraterrestrial rock star titled, in full, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. What a guy.
There was this thing that Bowie did a number of times in his career where he would invent a character for his songs and albums to be about and then actually become that character when performing. Most notably he took on the personas of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke over the years, but surely Ziggy was the most iconic. This practice not only made for more engaging live shows (I assume) but also probably helped him transition to true acting for the big screen. His acting talent shines through in the actual music, in a way, as his vocals turn theatrical at key moments in the album, really banging home the importance of certain points. We see this within the very first track, “Five Years” which sets the scene of a planet Earth doomed to die in 5 years’ time. Bowie, who had long been interested in space, puts himself in the shoes of the alien sent to Earth to save the world, but brilliantly uses this character to also comment on fame and sexual orientation, among other topics. Ziggy Stardust… is always a fun listen partially due to how well this fantastically unique concept is executed. Of course, the lyrics bear much of the weight of making the concept work, and Bowie’s lyricism is just about as good as you could ask for on this album. As descriptive as it is fantastical, Bowie drags us into his beautiful imagination and the world of his creation like he’s Wonka guiding a tour through the chocolate factory, and as such I’ve always found it pretty hard to not give in and just go with it. But while Bowie’s lyrics flesh out the details and really add spice to his stories and characters, we have to acknowledge the base on which the entire album is built: the instrumentals.
Largely conceived by Bowie himself and performed by his backing band who would come to call themselves the Spiders from Mars, thanks to this album, the instrumentals on Ziggy Stardust… are just so, so good. A grand, lush, calculated mixture of acoustics and electrics fitting each moment perfectly and living up to the grandeur of the album’s themes, they really did a bang-up job on this one. Most important of all, every song is easy and fun to listen to, almost in spite of their strange, potentially alienating (pun intended) themes. Whether it’s the catchy, upbeat guitars of “Starman” or the somber pianos on “Five Years” or the slow build-up to the explosive climax on “Rock and Roll Suicide”, every moment feels just right, no matter how many times I give this record a spin. The music is so good that you don’t even have to really listen to any of the lyrics in order to enjoy this album, and that accessibility when working with challenging ideas is really what made Bowie such a phenomenal and beloved artist.
This is one of those albums that it really just isn’t worth trying to be critical of. I honestly can’t do it. It is important, hugely influential, and endlessly fun. I personally love this album and, thanks to David Bowie fitting this month’s Musical Training Plan Theme, I’m glad that I now get to recommend it to anybody who is reading this. Thank you for reading and, please, if you’ve got 38 minutes to spare, give this album a listen. You won’t regret it.