Album Review: Aladdin Sane
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was an incredible success for David Bowie. Not only did it bring him further into the mainstream with classic songs like 'Starman' and 'Moonage Daydream', but it garnered more critical acclaim than any of his previous releases, cementing him as one of the greatest artists of his generation. The album has gone on to be considered an essential 70s classic, and the defining album in glam rock.
The praise Ziggy Stardust receives is all justified, as it was certainly one of the best albums of that decade, and of all time. However, the immense praise that Ziggy Stardust receives has led to the album which came after, Aladdin Sane, to be overshadowed. Aladdin Sane builds on the glam rock roots of Ziggy Stardust, sharpening them, creating a crisper and more abrasive sound. In many ways, I believe it surpasses Ziggy Stardust in terms of quality, but for many listeners, Aladdin Sane is neglected in favour of the iconic album before it.
Strangely, when people think of the character Ziggy Stardust (whom Bowie is famous for playing) they point to the image of him with pasty white skin, with a red-and-blue lightning bolt painted across his face. However, this is not Ziggy Stardust, but the character Aladdin Sane, around whom the concept of the album Aladdin Sane revolves.
David Bowie described this character as "Ziggy Stardust goes to America." The character embodies the decay and misery which come with stardom, with the album's songs describing the shallow life of sex, drugs, and loneliness which became synonymous with fame.
The opener to the album, 'Watch That Man', is one of my all time favourite Bowie songs. Bowie's energy is matched by a group of backing vocalists who harmonise with him, bringing so much more power to every word. The track has such a carefree and summery energy which carries on throughout the album. He sounds gleeful describing the scene of the after-party, listing its many guests, but as the album progresses we hear this excitement descend into misery as fame distorts and tortures Aladdin Sane.
An issue I have with 'Watch That Man' is that Bowie's vocals are mixed oddly low for a track with such a busy and engaging instrumental, but thanks to the backing singers his words are not drowned out by the music. 'Watch That Man' is the only song on the album to suffer mixing issues, but each song shares the same strengths - passionate singing from Bowie over some of the most lively instrumentals he would ever help produce.
The album's production was handled by many of the same musicians as on Ziggy Stardust, such as pianist Mike Garson who delivers one of the most manic and unpredictable piano solos on the song 'Aladdin Sane'. The brilliant thing about this album is that every instrument has so much character, be it the aforementioned piano solo on 'Aladdin Sane', the explosive instrumental on 'Time', or the dirty guitar on 'Cracked Actor' which sounds as rusty and raw as a revving car as the instrumental builds up. As Bowie describes the terrible life of fame, the instrumentals become so abrasive and cinematic, building on his misery in an uproar of electric guitars.
By contrast, there are also sombre moments on the album, giving the listener a moment of calm between its blaring highlights. The closer, 'Lady Grinning Soul', may be one of the most beautiful songs in Bowie's entire discography. The phenomenal piano work by Mike Garson once again adds so much to the track, with the notes flowing together like running water. Bowie's vocals are elegant yet reluctant - even in a moment of calm, describing his love for a woman, his voice shakes as though still pained by all the destructive forces of fame.
The album may not be as conceptual as Ziggy Stardust, nor as groundbreaking as Low or "Heroes", but Aladdin Sane knows what it is and conquers the sound of glam rock perfectly. David Bowie has an actor's range in his voice, able to portray so much excitement, agony, and desperation within only ten songs. From front to back, Aladdin Sane is full of emotional performances, crisp piano work and dark themes, making for one of Bowie's most engaging albums, and, in my opinion, his best.
10/10 Fav Tracks: Time, Aladdin Sane, Watch That Man, Cracked Actor, Lady Grinning Soul