To many fans, 1971’s Hunky Dory is one of David Bowie’s best records. In fact, many consider it to be his first masterpiece. It was Bowie’s fourth studio album and though his previous album The Man Who Sold The World laid the groundwork for something a bit more grand and flamboyant, Hunky Dory took this another step further. It’s full of glam rock-oriented songs as well as more traditional romantic ballads. The album also begins to cement Bowie as a shapeshifter as he’s experimenting with different musical and aesthetic styles. Though this isn’t necessarily one of his more cohesive, purposeful concept albums, he ties the album together with universal themes of love, fame and acceptance.
The album contains two of Bowies’ greatest-ever recordings—”Changes” and “Life on Mars.” In hindsight, the piano ballad and album opener “Changes” is indicative of Bowie’s tendency for constant experimentation and subversion of his own perceived identities. “Life on Mars” explores film as another artistic realm that helps us escape the monotony of life, even though the song’s protagonist is ultimately let down by movies as well.
1971 was also the first time that Bowie made the trip over to America as Hunky Dory brought him a higher level of notoriety. Bowie said in an interview of the breakthrough that Hunky Dory became, “Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience—I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, ‘Good album, good songs.’ That hadn’t happened to me before. It was like, ‘Ah, I’m getting it, I’m finding my feet. I’m starting to communicate what I want to do.’”
Listen to Bowie perform “Changes” live in 1976 and “Life on Mars” live in 1983.