I had promised myself that I would go at least a couple more entries before I talked about David Bowie again but then I listened to Low.
It’s a depressing fact that when an artist is going through a troubled period, nine times out of ten any material they release during that period, as well as immediately after if that material dwells on those troubles, is going to be an absolute corker. That’s been the case so far on this blog with Kid A and This is Hardcore for example. And unfortunately it was definitely the case with the inimitable Bowie. The mid-1970s saw him at his personal lowest ebb as he lost himself in a horrific cocaine addiction. His thing for alter-egos came back to bite him as he fell far too deeply into character as the Thin White Duke and the occult and fascism that came with it, and he completely lost all memory of recording Station to Station. He was on the verge of a mental breakdown and needed to bounce back pronto.
Thus he landed himself in Europe and began recording new material in an effort to detox himself, taking cues from songs he had helped compose with Iggy Pop for his solo debut The Idiot. Put simply it wasn’t the easiest of experiences for Bowie; kicking the habit isn’t something you do on a whim, his marriage was starting to fail, and while recording at a Swiss chateau he and his crew ended up dealing with the shits at one point. Thus, we get an album built on pain and suffering but trying its damndest to see the light wherever it may be shining through.
So what first attracted me to Low specifically? Well as I said in my last entry I’ve been looking into kosmiche music as of late by the likes of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Orange. And while I said that Bowie started flirting with it in Station to Station, Low was really where it started to influence him. Therefore, considering the sessions would culminate with him moving to Berlin, making this is the first entry into his infamous Berlin Trilogy, I felt that I had to give this a shot. And I’m glad I did.
Track #1 – Speed of Life
To me this is the sound of a grand entrance on the verge of calamity. Like when an entertainer goes on stage just shy of being too pissed to perform. Right away we hear the German influences with the repetitive notes and melody, all sounding like it’s been very neatly looped together. And of course there is that unique drumbeat achieved by producer Tony Visconti, in his own words, “[f*cking] with the fabric of space and time” with his new toy, the Eventide H910 Harmoniser. Thus we get that infamous cold and machine like bat. All in all a very unwelcoming sound that tries to be welcome. You’re glad to be here for some more Bowie but you’re not sure if you feel comfortable being here. Seriously, that noise that sounds like a 1960’s Cyberman crying gives me chills.
Track #2 – Breaking Glass
Speaking of Bowie, he makes his first appearance here with a song that is short and snappy, giving the impression that it was drawn up as an instrumental with the lyrics added in later on. I’m guessing the lyrics ‘Don’t look at the carpet/I drew something awful on it’ is a reference to DukeBowie’s occult fascination. Breaking Glass doesn’t last long enough to be contemplayed which I guess is kind of the point. Bowie is throwing his problems into the fire and letting them burn before they can resonate any further.
Track #3 – What in the World
A hangover from The Idiot. In fact, Iggy Pop is on this song somewhere. It’s the most normal sounding we’ve heard so far, with the avant-garde bloops and bleeps somehow managing to meld nicely with Ricky Gardiner’s guitar riffs. I think the Harmoniser-influenced drumbeats are what fuses them together.
Track #4 – Sound and Vision
This song has been etched into my head since I first heard it. It’s so damn catchy. Once again, we have another song that feels like it was tune first, lyrics later, hence we get none of the latter until we’re about a minute in. It’s also where the overarching melancholy of Low truly kicks in; it feels like the tune for a person trying to start fresh but still has that shadow looming over them. The lyrics add to that melancholy, described by Bowie as him locking himself away from the world as he tried to deal with his problems and try to get sound and vision to mean something again. Special mention aswell to Mary Hopkin, then-wife of Tony Visconti, and her doo-doo-doo’s. One of the most unnecessary and yet welcome things I’ve heard on a song. Like adding an extra chocolate chip into a cookie.
Track #5 – Always Crashing in the Same Car
Bit of history behind this one. While thematically it’s about making the same mistake over and over again (Which is unfortunately relatable), it also goes back to Bowie’s LA days when he apparently rammed his car into another belonging to a drug dealer who he believed had ripped him off. Not one of my personal favourites but I like the recurring melancholic overtones and the narrator’s deadpan reflection to Jasmine (a.k.a Iggy Pop).
Track #6 – Be My Wife
More of the after effects of Bowie’s time in LA spill into the music as he alludes to his ongoing issues with then-wife Angela. Be My Wife is much more conventional than what we have heard up to this point and could be easily mistaken for a pop song dropped into a bath of art rock. The piano notes are a particular highlight here, sounding almost as machine-like and cold as the signature Low drumbeat. It’s here you really start to notice how Bowie actually lacks prominence on this album, and that the real artist behind Low is the music itself; that drumbeat is the true frontman. This will become even more apparent as we approach the second half of the album.
Track #7 – A New Career in a New Town
On the nose title referencing Bowie’s hunt for a change of pace in a rather alien environment. Simply put, this is an eerie transition piece that evokes a sun setting on the first half of the album and the moon rising over the second. As if you’re going for a night out in this new town, and all the joys and anxieties that go with it. Also, love me a bit of the ol’ harmonica.
Track #8 – Warsawza
Settle in, folks, for now the word of the day is ‘ambience’. Bowie went to Warsaw and wanted to capture its desolation with music. Having next to no lyrics is a good start. It blends beauty and spookiness with strings and synths to take you on this journey. I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout: New Vegas lately and I think this track would perfectly suit a walk through the post-apocalyptic wastelands. Any and all beauty has all but faded away, but there’s still that little bit bleeding through and leaving that one speck of hope for the future. As I say the lyrics here are limited and it’s here where Low’s selling point is established; Bowie is not the singer or the frontman or anything like that. Instead, he’s just another instrument, part of the music rather than adding to it.
Track #9 – Art Decade
The opening notes remind me of Kid A. Something tells me that without Low, that album, and indeed the genre of post-rock, would not be a thing. The intent was very much to make this a melancholic piece, reflecting on the decaying nature of West Berlin. However, there’s something more ominous about it for me frankly. I guess you could spin it round towards the fact that the decay of anything is rather frightening.
Track #10 – Weeping Wall
Scarborough Fair for the Berliner. The steady beats evoke the shadow of the Berlin Wall hanging over the city as it is all that separates one world and the next, and all the unwanteds that come from it. Seconds ticking by, dread remaining evermore thanks to the Cold War.
Track #11 – Subterraneans
The kosmiche music tribute concludes with Subterraneans, a song originally intended for a soundtrack album for Bowie’s Hollywood debut, The Man Who Fell to Earth (Which I really, really need to watch one day). While I have been flirting more with the emotions of fear and dread rather than melancholy as intended by Low, this song is a chopped onion on tape. This symbolises the sadness and the regret felt by those trapped on the east side of the Wall, separated from their old lives. The saxophones and Bowie’s distant vocals evoke a sense of remembering those days, and how much better they were. Nostalgia in the cruellest and most depressing form.
To be honest, I initially considered doing this review by condensing the whole album instead of talking about each track one by one like I usually do. But I’m glad I didn’t because listening back to this album again since I first listened to it one night in April, I didn’t quite realise nor appreciate just how sad it is. This is honestly the most tearjerked I have felt since starting this blog. The melancholy really hits you on Low and drives home the point that this was the work of a man trying desperately to right himself lest he lose himself forever. While Kid A and This is Hardcore were reactions to how fame had brought Britpop-era bands to their low points, Low is a reaction to how Bowie’s own choices took him so far down. And that is much, much more effective.
It’s also a very Bowie way of doing things that instead of him singing about his troubles he lets the music speak for him instead. The first half sets up what’s going wrong in his life and the pain he is feeling, and the second half, chock-full of instrumentals, details the desolate prison he has exiled himself to for the time being. As well as that, we hear the shared expressed by the people he is living among. He can’t speak for them, he doesn’t have their voice, and it’s not like he can assume another character to pretend to be one of them lest he slip back into old habits. Thus, he lets the music do it for him. It’s a real testament to his backing musicians and Tony Visconti’s production.
Earthling was pretty good, don’t get me wrong. But Low? Low blows it out of the water. A damned fine piece of art rock, a damned fine piece of music.