It’s unfortunate that “Space Oddity” was used as the hook with which to draw listeners in to the album alternately dubbed Space Oddity (when reissued in 1972, post-Ziggy Stardust), David Bowie and Man of Words/Man of Music. To be sure, Bowie’s early career successes were largely predicated on “Space Oddity” the song and its near-perfect capturing of the zeitgeist, having been released the same summer that man would finally walk on the moon, and they portend much of what the musical landscape would look like in the coming years. But as is often the case with a single that ends up overshadowing the remainder of an album, let alone one so instantly iconic and unlike anything else on the album, the bar by which the rest of the material is measured is then set insurmountably high.

Add to this the career Bowie would subsequently have and you end up with his early work being unfairly compared to his myriad personae and more well-known, career-defining albums. Had he not gone on to release the albums he did not only throughout the ‘70s but into the ‘80s, ‘90s and 21st century, David Bowie/Space Oddity/Man of Words/Man of Music would’ve likely been more well regarded by listeners enamored of late-‘60s musical anomalies. Instead, it, like his self-titled debut, is more often than not unfavorably compared alongside his latter releases, minimizing its artistic merits in the face of Bowie’s later music iterations and experimentations.

Which is grossly unjust considering the overall level of quality contained within the grooves of Space Oddity/David Bowie/Man of Words/Man of Music. Even without the presence of “Space Oddity,” the album itself is an inarguable step forward from his debut, the depth and breadth of the material showing an artist coming into his own through unflinching trial and error. Where before he relied on short, heavily psych-folk-based pop songs, here he ventures into full-on prog rock territory with songs like the epic “Cygnet Committee” (nearly 10 minutes), “Memory of a Free Festival” (topping seven) and “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” (nearly seven minutes).

Each of these comes off as a lyrical extension of where he was before, though utilizing a more poetic approach that veers sharply between reality and surrealism, resulting in a collection of songs along the lines of Dylan’s first forays into rock and more abstract territory. “Cygnet Committee,” in particular, shows the greatest Dylan influence in its lush, vivid wordplay and evocation of his generation’s desire to follow and be led by those of a seemingly higher consciousness. Narrated midway through by the Thinker, “Cygnet Committee” touches on the failed idealism of the hippie movement, the false prophets, many of whom were, “not of the best of men, but ours” and who were “used…/ [to] let him fill our needs.” Here the messianic complex of many figureheads of the peace and anti-war movements could sub in for the more generic figure Bowie places at the center, each ultimately succumbing to their innate humanity and failing to reach the divine heights to which they and their followers aspired.

This type of more philosophical writing is a massive step up from his debut, and is also reflected in songs like the equally Dylan-esque “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” the borderline nostalgic “Memory of a Free Festival” (the subject again the slowly splintering hippie generation and the fallout from all their free love and wanton idealism) and, though not necessarily as effective, the social commentary of “God Knows I’m Good”. Each of these show Bowie pushing himself as a songwriter into bold new territory, not only lyrically, but musically as well, using his psych roots as a jumping off point into more ambitious arrangements.

It’s similar to ground Elton John would begin covering within the next few years, thanks to the involvement of producer Gus Dudgeon who, along with Tony Visconti, helped shape the sound of Space Oddity and, in the process, established an entirely new, decidedly British, sonic framework on which they would rely for the next several years with artists like Bowie and John (not to mention the handful of lesser names who copped the sound and feel in an attempt to recapture some of the magic of these early records. Of course you need to have good songs first before you can even hope to begin recapturing anything even remotely resembling magic…)

And while Bowie would finally find his stride within the next several years, particularly following the release of Hunky Dory, here he was clearly getting his feet beneath him in a way that would set him up for long-term success, both artistically and commercially. And while the commercial component may seem lacking here, the artistic element of Bowie’s genius is on full display and would continue to flower as he followed his muse ever onward. Space Oddity is nowhere near the ugly stepchild of “Space Oddity” it has long been made out; instead, it offers a tantalizing glimpse of Bowie’s formative genius. While not nearly as celebrated as his later releases, it’s no less essential to understanding his capital-A Art.

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