Home Music Discography Discography: David Bowie: Low

Discography: David Bowie: Low

In 1976, David Bowie found himself in a strange place in his life: artistically, he was coming off of a high point with Station to Station, the album that took his “plastic soul” concept into more daring territory. Personally, though, he had hit rock bottom. He was so coked out throughout the recording of Station that he later claimed to have no memory of making it, and his self-destructive behavior had led to him reaching a crossroads in his life. It was then that Bowie left behind his hedonistic lifestyle in Los Angeles for Berlin, where he aimed to kick his addictions and escape the spotlight. While there, he created some of the most beautiful, forward-thinking music of his career and in doing so, he jeopardized the commercial success that he found playing glam rock and plastic soul.

Surprisingly, the genesis of Low began in Los Angeles rather than in Berlin. Bowie had begun exploring ambient composition at the time, and the music he pitched to director Nicolas Roeg to accompany The Man Who Fell to Earth fell more in line with the album he would eventually make than anything Bowie had done before. However, it was only when he got to Berlin and immersed himself in Germany’s wildly creative prog-rock and electronica scenes that Low really began to take shape. As with all of Bowie’s genre shifts, it was a conscious decision, but it wasn’t one governed by shifting trends or an attempt to maintain cultural relevance. Rather, Bowie seemed determined to shed any aspect of his prior identity. Glam, psychedelia, soul, funk: all of it was gone.

In its place is…something different. Low’s first half is a collection of fractured rock songs that incorporate synthesizers and guitar effects in a way that tips its hat to German prog, but it lacks the genre’s structural fussiness and maximalist aesthetic. Instead, Bowie works in fragments, refusing to let his songs conclude at what would be logical endpoints and instead playing with the audience’s expectations at every turn. As a case in point, “Sound and Vision” is easily the most accessible song on the album’s first side. Its buoyant melody and shimmering arrangement feel like a warm embrace, and the song’s luster has not faded with time. Over this essentially perfect pop composition, Bowie waits one minute and 29 seconds—half of the song’s runtime—to sing a word. It breaks all the rules of pop songcraft that Bowie had, until very recently, followed pretty strictly. Look further, and Low’s first side gets even stranger; the lyrical fragments that make up “Breaking Glass,” a song that isn’t really about much per se but which still perfectly evokes the chaos of Bowie’s life at the time. Even “Be My Wife,” the album’s most conventional-sounding song, is thrown into disarray as it concludes, with Bowie’s repetition of the line “Sometimes I get so lonely” sounding more and more desperate. This is the sound of a man in pain, but also the sound of a man exorcising demons. In Low, Bowie is shedding the chaos and strife that had so engulfed his life in a quest to look for something new, something that becomes evident when one one flips the album over to side two.

If the first half of Low seemed odd to listeners at the time, it at least resembled pop music, even if it wasn’t any kind of pop music they had heard before. Side two, on the other hand, was uncharted territory for all but a handful of listeners. “A New Career in a New Town” signals Bowie’s personal and artistic rebirth while also letting listeners know about what is to come. Instead of pop songs, Low finishes with four synth-based instrumentals that sound unlike anything Bowie had ever previously composed. Each piece incorporates different ideas pulled from jazz (“Subterraneans”), folk (“Weeping Wall,” which partially reinterpreted “Scarborough Fair”) and traditional Polish music (the immense “Warszawa”). Everything, though, is built around the synthesizer, an instrument Bowie had become familiar with through his collaborator Brian Eno. Eno is credited with having a hand in all of the albums of what would be called “the Berlin trilogy,” and while his influence is maybe a little exaggerated (not to mention unfair to producer Tony Visconti, who was just as influential a collaborator for Bowie as Eno was), it’s impossible not to see Eno’s fingerprints all over Low’s instrumental tracks. Not only did Eno write most of “Warszawa,” but one can also connect the dots from his early ambient albums to the jittery “Art Decade” and the lush “Weeping Wall.” However, one shouldn’t get the impression that Bowie was just copying Eno: these were still his compositions, filled with the same kind of sweeping drama that Bowie could infuse any song with. All Eno did was introduce Bowie to another form of musical expression. Once Bowie found that, he seemed liberated.

Depending on whom one asks, Low may or may not be David Bowie’s best work (I certainly think so). It is, however, undeniably the most ahead-of-his-time David Bowie has ever sounded. Reviews of the album at the time ranged from confused to scathing, and when reading them, it’s clear that most critics’ problem with the album at the time was that they just didn’t get it. They were used to Bowie throwing them for a loop, but this? This was just too far. Today, having seen a plethora of bands inspired by both side one of the album (shades of what Blur would become can be heard on “Be My Wife”) and side two (hello, Talk Talk), Low may not sound quite as shocking as it did in 1977. Yet it still has that impact every time you listen to it, and that has to be chalked up to both the strength of the compositions and the total commitment Bowie made to his new artistic identity. In a career full of left turns, Low was David Bowie’s most successful reinvention.

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