The Man Who Sold the World was David Bowie's 3rd album (after David Bowie and Space Oddity), as well as the name of a popular track on it. The album was released in 1970 in the United States and in 1971 in Great Britain. He made it with the help of (alphabetically) Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti on everything, and Mick Woodmansey on percussion.
The album marks a split from Bowie's previous album, Space Oddity. Where Space Oddity had a lot of synthesized faux-orchestral music and straightforward narrative, The Man Who Sold the World (I'll just say MWSW from now on for simplicity) has definite influences from early metal, and the lyrics are more abstract and symbolic. It's here where we see the glam rock Bowie of the early 1970s emerge.
MWSW also represents the beginnings of Bowie's androgyny: the album cover shows Bowie, tousling his long hair, lounging in a long dress. The cover caused some small controversy, and several other versions of it were prepared for different countries.
The music is very good. As I mentioned, it shows heavy influence from metal (heavy metal influence?), such as distortion guitar, and a far stronger percussion part than in previous Bowie music. The subject material for MWSW is more "out there" than in Space Oddity: evil computers, journeys to the underworld, and ancient gods, as well as some social criticism in the form of Running Gun Blues.
Several of my favorite Bowie tracks are on this album — Width of a Circle, The Man Who Sold the World, and The Supermen in particular. In my humble opinion, they're the sort of music that is fun if you don't understand the lyrics, and then a lot more fun once you do. But take this with a grain of salt; I've been somewhat Bowie-obsessed of late.
Oh, and despite many detesting it, I like Saviour Machine a lot: it's about a computer built to save the planet who begs to be destroyed before it (he?) does anything to harm humanity.
Since it has the same name, I'd also like to talk briefly about the titular track of the album. The plot seems to be about spirits wandering the Earth, unaware that they have died, unwilling to let go of their link to the world of the living. The track was later covered by Nirvana, and among many younger listeners, was better-known as a Nirvana song than as Bowie's.
In my humble opinion, the original is better. The performance is tighter, as a careful listener can hear Nirvana flub some of the song's rhythms (of course, it could be intentional); I also prefer Bowie's voice to Cobain's. But either way, both versions are quite enjoyable, and it's interesting to see what influence Nirvana must have found in Bowie's original album.
- Width of a Circle
- All the Madmen
- Black Country Rock
- After All
- Running Gun Blues
- Saviour Machine
- She Shook Me Cold
- The Man Who Sold the World
- The Supermen