Review: David Bowie’s Early Entrance Revealed

David Bowie/The Width of a Circle/Parlophone
4.5 out of Five stars

Prior to Major Tom, well before Ziggy Stardust and preceding his superstardom, there was the tousle-haired troubadour David Bowie-nee-Jones, an aspiring pop star with a penchant for literary references and, prior to that, a decided folk finesse. Bowie’s first two albums, both self-titled, found him in full singer/songwriter mode, flush with ambition but still probing his possibilities and exploring any number of personas he hoped to pursue. 

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The Width of a Circle brings that period into closer focus courtesy of various radio recordings, select singles, new mixes and songs from a rare theatrical production featuring mime artist and early Bowie confidant Lindsay Kemp, all of which were accessed from the vaults. Most of the material is circa 1970, the year that found Bowie on the cusp of what promised to be his big breakthrough with The Man Who Sold the World. It would be released in November of that year, several months after these vintage performances took place. That said, Bowie aficionados will recognize many of the songs shared here—“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” “The Prettiest Star,” “The Width of a Circle,” and “Memory of a Free Festival,” among them—but oddly, there’s no “Space Oddity,’ the song that would take him from the status of an idiosyncratic artist and bring him to the secure status he so decidedly deserved.

Still, given the generous amount of material spread across these two discs—as well as a lavishly illustrated book of liner notes that documents every detail and shares rare photos and singles sleeves as well—The Width of a Circle is a must-have for any diehard David fan. All are revelatory offerings, beginning with Bowie’s solo read of Jacque Brel’s “Amsterdam” through to full band performances featuring future Spiders sideman Mick Ronson on guitar, fellow partner in glam Marc Bolan, producer and bassist Tony Visconti, and keyboard maestro and future Yes-man Rick Wakeman. While this early material was decidedly precious in its posturing and presentation, Bowie’s creativity is clearly in full bloom, making it obvious even at the outset that his preternatural talent was girding him for greater glories.

This may not be Bowie’s final requiem—there have already been several releases since his sudden demise and there will likely be more—but as a postscript of sorts, it serves him well. His career found him a chameleon of sorts, and while this album encompasses only a fraction of the total trajectory, it’s a fascinating glimpse at his seminal sound. In that regard, The Width of a Circle is expansive indeed.

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