I’ll just come right out and say it: Hunky Dory isn’t just good, it’s astonishingly good. It has the feel of a lost Beatles record; at the very least it could have fit as the fifth and sixth sides of The White Album if it had another disc. Released a year after the Beatles broke up, it captures the post-Beatles hangover perfectly, filling the void probably better than any other record, in fact. Leading off with the classic song “Changes,” you immediately get the sense that the page has turned, that the ’60s are over and things are beginning anew in the world of rock & roll. Hunky Dory is one of those rare albums that sounds delightfully old-fashioned (a shrill piano emerges as nearly every song’s center of gravity) and forward-thinking at the same time, as Bowie carries the Beatles’ torch into the new decade with a thunderous songwriting force not seen in rock & pop since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Songs like the grand “Oh! You Pretty Things” and the buoyant “Fill Your Heart” lend the album a celebratory nature. And then there’s “Andy Warhol,” the intro to which is probably the weirdest thing since “Revolution 9” from The White Album. It’s a damn amazing song though. Hunky Dory was Bowie’s first great record. He released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars the following year, which is widely regarded as his finest work, and while I like it a lot (it’s an honorable mention), I happen to like Hunky Dory a lot more. It’s a very quick listen, as it’s full of energy and covers a lot of ground, incorporating a lot of influences in grand fashion. The aforementioned “Andy Warhol” is a tribute to the artist whose work appeared on the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico, one of the most influential albums of all time. (Warhol also paid for the recording sessions and received a producer credit, it should be noted.)
Like Sgt. Pepper, Hunky Dory has a lot of subtle touches like orchestras that come and go and an old-timey feel — think “When I’m Sixty-Four” — that a lot of great albums of its era had. But it’s Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run that frequently comes to mind whenever I listen to Hunky Dory. Not because the two albums necessarily sound alike, but because both are anchored by the piano. When Springsteen wrote the songs for Born to Run, he composed them on the piano instead of the guitar, and as a result just about every song — the only exception is the title track — feels piano-based. The Beatles took rock music to new heights, but after peaking with Sgt. Pepper, they gradually came back to Earth, burning unpleasantly as they re-entered the atmosphere and cratering upon impact with the anticlimactic Let It Be. But by the next year, the dusty air was settling, and it’s that damn piano on Hunky Dory that really shone through the haze.