After the hard rock of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie took a softer approach to his follow-up record. In the middle of the singer-songwriter boom of the early seventies, Hunky Dory is too camp to be mistaken for James Taylor, but it’s dominated by acoustic instruments with Bowie’s acoustic guitar and guest pianist Rick Wakeman taking centre stage. The lighter tone of the album draws attention to the fact that Bowie’s songwriting has improved markedly; The Man Who Sold The World was a bunch of interesting genre experiments with only a couple of strong songs, but the majority of these compositions are intelligent and interesting, and Hunky Dory may be Bowie’s best set of songs, if not his best album. The singer-songwriter tone of Hunky Dory also means that it’s about as personal as Bowie gets, delivering a career statement of intent in ‘Changes’, confessing his obsession with artifice in ‘Life On Mars’, and an endearing song to his young son in ‘Kooks’.
Hunky Dory starts with one of Bowie’s hookiest and most recognisable songs ‘Changes’; deservedly a classic rock radio standard. Close behind in the pop stakes are ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ and the soaring, Wakeman dominated, ‘Life On Mars’. Alongside this accessible material, there’s excellent lesser known material; ‘Quicksand’ name checks dubious influences like Alastair Crowley and Himmler, while ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ is a lengthy, debatably Tolkien-influenced epic. The second tier material is also strong, with ‘Kooks’ strangely engaging (“Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads/I’m not much cop at fighting other people’s dads”) and ‘Andy Warhol’ a good example of this album’s Bowie’s balance between glam rocker and singer songwriter.
Hunky Dory is a fascinating album in the Bowie catalogue; next year he became Ziggy Stardust, and never again in the 1970s would he sound so human.