David Bowie, Aladdin Sane

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 05.18.11 in Reviews

Aladdin Sane

David Bowie

The trouble with crafting a masterpiece is figuring out where to go next. With Aladdin Sane, Bowie mostly sidesteps that dilemma. Cheekily described by its creator as “Ziggy Goes to America,” Aladdin is leaner and punchier than its predecessor, favoring stomp and swagger over primp and preen. Opener “Watch That Man” sets the template in block letters: a big, burly riff from Mick Ronson, boozy barroom piano and the kind of grandstanding chorus that both incinerates and insinuates.

Ziggy goes to America

The album’s title is no joke: recorded and released during the height of Ziggy-mania, Bowie was in genuine jeopardy of losing both his mind and his identity, and had begun scrambling together a plan to “phase out Ziggy before Ziggy phased out David.” Unsurprisingly, much of Aladdin is fixated on the downside of success. The grinding, gutbucket blues of “Cracked Actor” depicts a desperate onetime Hollywood icon clawing at the last vestiges of success; bleary ruined vaudeville number “Time” warns “Time — he flexes like a whore/ falls wanking to the floor.” Many of the songs center around Mike Garson’s elegant, ice-cold piano. The cascades that run up and down the spine of the title track are as brisk and unsettling as a sudden chill, and the pounding and thrashing that take up the center of the song feel like an aural manifestation of its theme. Nothing on Aladdin feels as urgent or as inspired as Ziggy, but neither is it merely a limp sequel. Instead, it provides a few more showstoppers before Stardust slipped off into that good night once and for all.

The death of Ziggy happened — appropriately enough — on stage, at the final stop of the group’s 1973 world tour, and was captured by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker for posterity’s sake. “This is the last show we’ll ever play,” Bowie announced, to the shock of not only his audience but his bandmates as well. The group dissolved immediately thereafter, with longtime friends Bowie and Ronson nodding a terse, emotionless goodbye backstage. They would never work together again.