Title: Life on Mars?
Artist: David Bowie
Album: Hunky Dory
"Life on Mars?" is probably the best song of 1971. It may be the best song of the 1970s, period. I don't even know what to say about it, really. It is certainly the most significant stepping stone in David Bowie's transition from unique folkie to glam rock superstar, setting the stage for the following year's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. It is also perhaps the first song by Bowie to fully realize the cinematic nature of Bowie's early 1970s period. The drama in the song is overwhelming and still packs a punch forty years later.
So what makes it work? The lyrics have been called surreal and Dali-esque but they actually seem firmly rooted in reality to me. Admittedly, they're not obvious and are open to varying interpretations, but they seem more cohesive than whimisical and the references are quite specific. But it's the harmony that elevates the song to high drama in my opinion. For a pop song, there's enough chromaticism in this chord progression to make Wagner proud. During the verse, the half-steps (with occasionally whole step) fall in a downward direction (F-E-Eb-D/G-F-E-(Eb) in a peaceful cascade. But in the bridge from verse to chorus, where the tension really gets ratcheted up, the direction is skyward (Eb-E-F-Gb/Db-A-Bb-Cb). The transition from Db/Cb to Bb Major right before the chorus is one of the most striking moments I've ever heard in a pop song and Bowie takes full advantage with an unexpected vocal leap of a 6th. Throughout the chorus, the chromaticism continues but it's more internalized, occurring more around the 3rd or 5th of the chord than in the bass. It's a thrilling progression.
Finally, it's important to note the arrangement which certainly plays a role in the dramatic nature of the song. The piano is played by Rick Wakeman, who embellishes in the style of the Romantics and Mick Ronson provides a string arrangement that fortifies the chromaticism of the harmony. An amazing effort by one of rock's most creative artists to end my week-long look at 1971.