Nearly fifty years ago to the day, David Bowie released his third studio album, “The Man Who Sold the World”. The album’s title track has since been covered by a number of artists – for good reason, too, as we’ll see.
Now that we’re on the other side of October with Halloween behind us, you might think we’ll stop looking at anymore spooky or scary songs. Well, you’d be half-right. While we won’t be going out of our way to cover more Halloween songs, we also aren’t going to be jumping into the winter holidays just yet. And everyone knows there’s no such thing as a Thanksgiving song.
So this week, we’re going to be looking back again at significant song and album anniversaries. And maybe we’ll throw one or two Halloween songs in the mix as well. We’ll see that, even in our song today, there’s still room for some leftover songs with darker themes.
But before we get into the song itself, let’s first take a look at the album that shares it’s namesake.
The Man Who Sold the World (album)
David Bowie’s album, “The Man Who Sold the World” was released on November 4th, 1970. Stylistically, the hard rock album was seen as a departure from Bowie’s (mostly acoustic) previous release. This shift on Bowie’s part mirrored the cultural shift that was occurring toward heavy rock and metal at the time. With the fall of the Beatles, and the rise of bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, heavier sound were finding their audiences.
It’s clear when you listen to “The Man Who Sold the World” that Bowie was making an intentional change. In fact, the very first sound you hear on the album is feedback, in the opening to the heavily distorted “The Width of a Circle”. In the context of these heavier songs, Bowie’s voice at times sounds much like Robert Plant.
But more impressive than the drastic stylistic change might have been the songwriting itself – the unusual chord changes and unexpected musical directions taken. That, and of course the dark themes of insanity mixed with an assortment of science-fictional creatures and characters. Songs like “The Supermen” touched on Lovecraftian horror, while others like “All the Madmen” dealt with mental illness.
The Man Who Sold the World (song)
“The Man Who Sold the World” is another song on the album that dealt with darker themes. Judging from its lyrics, it depicts Bowie meeting a mysterious man who may or may not be imaginary. The lyrics are quite vague, and at least don’t give a straightforward or easy answer to the question of who the man is other than ‘the one who sold the world’.
The lyrics seem to suggest that one or both characters in the song are not real, or at the very least, feel that way. The choruses alternate between the lines “I never lost control”, and “We never lost control”. Additionally, the opening lines make it clear from the beginning that everything will be unclear.
“We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend”
These lines seem to be full of contradiction. We’re not going to dive into them, but their presence supports the theme of mental illness, possibly in this case with multiple personalities.
Overall, one thing I’ve always appreciated about David Bowie was his ability – and it seems, preference – to continually experiment, and do so fully and completely. He was another artist who went through multiple changes, but never seemed to lose sight of who he was or what he believed. And Bowie’s ability to reflect that in his music is part of what made him so accessible and loved. It’s the reason why “The Man Who Sold the World” was covered by the likes of Lulu and Nirvana.
“The Man Who Sold the World” wasn’t an album I’d ever listened to all the way through until recently. As a young fan of bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, I found it right up my alley. And considering that it’s only a year away from turning fifty, I’m sure we’ll be visiting it again soon.
I hope you enjoyed listening to and learning a little bit about David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”. We’ll be back tomorrow with another song to help get you through the week.