Sound: After trying his folky/hippie wings on the previous year's "Space Oddity" album, Bowie immediately went straight into something completely different, rapidly establishing himself as the "chameleon of rock music". By 1970, he was looking in the direction of some of the heaviest bands at the time, such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
The production of "The Man Who Sold The World" is perhaps not as hard as the Zeps or as heavy as the Sabs, but it's bleak and barren. The bass guitar is often heavy on fuzz, and the guitar tone is raw to the bone. Mick Ronson really gets to show off on this album, with guitar solos popping up pretty much everywhere and even guitar harmonies on some of the tracks. There are also a few tracks which are folk songs rather than hard rock, and they feature some awesomely sloppy flute work which makes the songs sound quite demented. By now, you might have gotten the idea that there is nothing on this album that could be called accesible or radio-friendly. And then you would be right. While it may scare some fans of Bowie's commercial zenith, 70's rock maniacs like myself will adore it. // 8
Lyrics: This is the department where the album really shines in comparison with other early rock and metal bands. Bowie was always a clever fellow, and he had a very captivating style of writing lyrics. On this album, he sings about a wide range of subjects, most of them presented in a dark and/or cryptic way. He critisizes the authorities' treatment of the mentally ill in All The Madmen (inspired by his brother Terry who would also inspire the song Bewlay Brothers on the album "Hunky Dory), he takes a potshot at organized religion in Saviour Machine, and he explores his Nietzschean philosophies in The Supermen and After All. Some more cryptic and arguable lyrics are featured in the title track, Black Country Rock and The Width of a Circle, and Running Gun Blues offers a rather graphic account of a soldier at war.
Bowie adapts his singing well to the music. His thin, metallic voice suits this material quite well, and he was probably wise to avoid the grandiose style of his later glam rock years. Since his voice is kind of weird and not "impressive" (from a technical point of view), it might be hard to stomach for some. I know, for me it was an aqcuired taste, but I'm fully used to it now and I wouldn't want it to sound any different. // 9
Overall Impression: This album is rarely regarded as a milestone of hard rock, and it's not hard to see why. Compared to such groundbreaking, heavy albums as "Paranoid" and "Deep Purple in Rock", both of which appeared in 1970, this album pales in terms of historical importance. But it's still quite a gem. It might only contain one true classic (the title track, later raped by Nirvana on their Unplugged album. Sorry Kurt, you did some great stuff, but you shoulda left this alone), but it's got several other strong ones. The Width of a Circle, Black Country Rock and the timpani-enchanced The Supermen are all strong proto-metal songs. Saviour Machine and All The Madmen are both as awesome as they are weird. And even the lesser songs matter, as they're all quite diverse and differ a lot from each other.
It's hard to pinpoint something on this album that's actually bad, there are just some places where the album drags a bit. After All is a bit to boring, the sludge-fest She Shook Me Cold doesn't really go anywhere, and Running Gun Blues is just bland. Also, the album never gets truly breathtaking, maybe except for the closing chants of the title track.
Overall, this is an album I recommend for fans of hard 70's rock, first and foremost. Actually, it's hard to tell if a fan of Bowie is guaranteed to like it, since Bowie tried pretty much any genre that crossed his way. // 8