David Bowie – Low (RCA, 1977)

The master of reinvention defies us all once again with his abstract electronic tinged masterpiece.

Bowie’s musical and non-musical career has been littered with moments and landmarks that transcended himself and culture in general. Be it within fashion, art direction, film or obviously music, he always looked at things in a different way, a manner that surprised, intrigued and delighted in equal measure. But always with an eye for the future, almost anticipating what would transpire next. His very being and essence were revolved around the concept of evolution, daring to go against prevailing trends, absorb what was around him and channel it into his music. Only a certain genius would be able to believe in this sort of journey, a self belief and ability that allowed for the relevancy to be retained and enjoyed by all for decades. We always believed in Bowie’s world, now it was time to become fully immersed in it.

Bowie’s world was always populated with characters, figures, that allowed him to focus on a soundtrack that would fill the radio airwaves of all the cars and diners within it. The saucer eyed dreamer of his self titled debut through to his first classic, ‘Hunky Dory’, the emphasis was on reflection and space age exploration, partially inspired particularly by the musings of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and perhaps the pan-Africanism of artists like Sun Ra. It was music for those who looked for an escape, and then grounded it in realism, exploring contexts and characters that allowed the listener to come back to plant earth. Then came his most celebrated character, Ziggy Stardust, who played guitar on Bowie’s most celebrated release, ‘The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. Here is where Bowie fully transcended himself from the music and into the hearts and minds of the generation who witnessed him on Top of the Pops, a alien creature, overly queer in his outfit and mannerisms, changing the face of pop music forever. It’s kind of tear jerking talking to people who witnessed this as kids, as when Bowie pointed at you during the line, ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you’, everyone watching was suddenly invited into his world, his vision, his star eyed imagination. It was when Bowie fully became a part of not just music’s rich tapestry but as part of everyone, his form and look suddenly breaking the walls down and becoming alive and tangible. His performances during this period were groundbreaking in their artistry, with the costumes and musicality on display moving audiences into ecstasy, guiding them beyond the realms of reality and into some kind of 4th dimension, with Bowie the star of the show. It was all the more heartbreaking when Bowie dramatically announced the retirement of Ziggy, with fans shocked, and indeed the world. But Bowie was never going to accept being just one dimensional, his view of the world too broad and far reaching to being confined to just one reincarnation.

His move to America resulted in the release of ‘Diamond Dogs’ and then ‘Young Americans’, both of which showed Bowie’s increasing exploration of the funk and soul genres. ‘Young Americans’ in particular, released in 1975, is regarded as the finest blue eyed soul album ever released, with its dynamic and rich sound acting as a refreshing landmark within this particularly difficult moment in Bowie’s personal life. The Thin White Duke phase would follow next, along with Bowie’s decline into significant drug addiction. The Duke was perhaps a too literal reflection of this, Bowie a thin and sickly reflection of his former self. The resultant record from this period, ‘Station to Station’, is a link between his American sounds explorations and what would transpire during the ‘Berlin Trilogy’, a experimental and groundbreaking record that knitted together his idealism with forward thinking funk inspired compositions. It was however during this point that his drug addiction caught up with him, as his actions wound up with many accusing him of pro-facist actions, that he would later blame on cocaine and his fascination of the Thin Duke as a character. Living in LA had ruined Bowie, and it was time for significant changes to occur.

Considering everything that had transpired, and the relatively short time between the loss of Ziggy to 1976, Bowie had been through a lot, and soul searching was coming. The move to Berlin with his friend Iggy Pop, both of whom did so primarily to kick their respective drug habits, would ultimately turn into the most positive musical periods of both musicians careers. Pop would churn out ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust for Life’ during this period, with Bowie acting as co-writer and co-producer, both of which remain his most celebrated releases as a solo artist. But anyway, lets chat about Bowie for a second. Bowie had become increasingly interested in the sounds swirling out of Berlin during the time, within what was known as the Krautrock movement, what included bands such as Kraftwerk and Neu!. The emphasis placed on experimentation, quirky compositions and out there lyrics, would fuel Bowie’s imagination and concepts for new music. Teaming up with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, he would release three records during this time, the first of which would be 1977s ‘Low’.

Bowie had always acted as a musical chameleon of sorts, moving through the motions and always changing colours to suit mood and emotion, context and environment. ‘Low’ would serve as both a reflection of his new surroundings but also his mood and feelings. Overcoming his serious addictions, this record would serve as a sort of remedy to his life and musical career. That he managed to utilise the record as both is a masterstroke in itself. Bowie fans were unsure about the record when it came out, as it challenged and delighted in equal measure. On paper, given the time it was released, it was incredibly ambitious, a mixture of more conventionally structured rock songs paired with the B side of primarily ambient synth driven sonic landscapes is just crazy to fathom. The influence of Eno, Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra etc is here, and blended with Bowie’s masterful and unconventional songwriting, will lead to incredible conclusions. But even the A side sounded weird, as if the blend occurred at a steady pace before the unconventional would really kick in. In many ways, this would be Bowie’s most drastic departure from previous incarnations of his sound. Whilst his previous records somehow built on earlier works, this one feels like an enormous step forward, with a tiny foot placed within his discography to date, but with this enormous eye placed on the contemporary and indeed the future. Its sheer brilliance is found within the pairing of the electronic community during this period, and Bowie’s sheer force of creative will. So, lets dig in shall we?

Sometimes you get so lonely/Sometimes you get nowhere

We start proceedings off with ‘Speed of Life’. A instrumental opener, the drums are heavy, the synths are even heavier, the guitar riff so on point its ridiculous. It’s one of a handful of moments that feel simply triumphant, an explosion of energy within a sea of other worldy sounds and compositions. The brilliance of transitions within this song is found within the drumming, that allow for the various layering of instruments to seamlessly move between scenes. Layering of sounds is very much of importance to the album as a whole, and will be touched on significantly during this review. Up next we have ‘Breaking Glass’, which is the first tune to show the blend of the German scene with Bowie’s signature sound on the record. The song starts off innocently enough, with a rock guitar riff greeting us, before Bowie’s voice comes into play. Its less theatrical, less dynamic in range to begin with, almost speaking. The tune changes up here, with very much rock stylings, before out of nowhere comes this synth, that pierces through, adding weight to the words, that talk about seemingly destroying someones house (and why would he do that?). Then Bowie shows his true vocal colours moving back into the initial feel of the song, before it descends back into this really strong verse line. Then its over, the whole song lasting just shy of 2 minutes. Absolutely crazy. Next we have ‘What in the World’, and here we really take a dip into this new world. The drums remain high tempo, with quirky synth stylings the undercurrent of Bowie’s frantically delivered lyrics. A composition that feels like a runaway freight train, the guitar again plays an important part here. Bowie’s vocals play around more here, moving from the softly spoken, to his roaring ‘What in the world can I do?’, with a certain Iggy Pop chiming in for that oh so weird and wonderful feel. What a ridiculously brilliant song, it feels like ‘Suffragette City’ but its been blasted through a synthesiser, taken down a few notches, had the lyrics re written and reimagined totally. Up next is ‘Sound and Vision’. This song perhaps best reflects the album as a whole, the merging of Bowie’s old with Bowie’s new. A masterpiece of a composition, the beautiful chiming guitar, interlaced with keys, synths and an off the wall drumming pattern, create an utterly entrancing musical landscape. Bowie’s off kilter lyrics, seemingly none sensical but tying into the concept of sounds merged with what you see, help to contextualise them. To be honest, the vocals just join in with the brilliance occurring underneath, they become one. The initial tunes feel like they were building up to this moment, a bridge between the weird and wonderful. Its not surprising that this song remains one of Bowie’s most celebrated tunes, a stroke of genius.

Up next is ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’. This one has that hazy feelings of some of the tunes off ‘Young Americans’, with the lazy fuzzy guitar licks and chords. The emphasis shifts dramatically from Bowie’s voice to the instrumental, which is spellbindingly haunting and beautiful at the same time. The synths play a big part in this, grooving and moving along at an incessant pace, with the dynamics here on point. The depths that are explored here are unparalleled, the guitar licks rising from the deep, with Bowie’s voice rising to match them. This song has perhaps the most conventional song structure of any of the songs on this record, but still it has its rightful place on this album. The instrumental aspects span out for a lifetime, seemingly never-ending, making their dramatic conclusion all the more compelling. ‘Be My Wife’ follows next. The line ‘sometimes you get so lonely/sometimes you get nowhere’ cut deep, and sounds so longing. Again the sparse vocals add so much emphasis on the burning fist in the air instrumentals, the bass line pounding, the guitar ripping through so hard. The drums and piano coupled together perfectly, adding the strongest of rhythm sections into the mix. Bowie repeats the lines, so simple in their message, yet so perfectly placed within the composition as to add such weight to the words. Before his lyrics talked of far away worlds and real life characters that seemed only not so real, here he lays his emotions and insecurities and failures extremely bare, undercut by hard hitting music underneath.

A New Career in a New Town

Now, the emphasis shifts dramatically, with ‘A New Career In a New Town’. A kick drum starts us off (woah), with synths dripping with feeling drifting in and out of time and space on top. Before the drums drive it up a notch, with guitar, harmonica and a more complex synth line all adding to a bewildering and mesmerising transition. The sparse becoming the dense, clarity becoming confusion. The layering here is superb, the transition such a contrast yet so easy, so seamless and on point. It keeps the song moving forward perpetually, keeping the mind racing. God damn this is such a track , one to to get really lost in. Bowie here condensed this song into a 3 minute long composition, which was enough for us to get a flavour of what might come next. If this song was reflective of the previous tunes lengths, now we descend into the sonic blue entirely. ‘Warszawa’ comes next, and we are greeted with the drones and wails of ambient feels at its finest. The slow stabs give way to chord progressions plucked from the stars above, taken from the minds of gods and given life. This is purity, this is just simply the work of fuck me wow. The song transitions from synths to vocals, that is so incredible in its delivery that it takes a minute to take in at what happened. Bowie shows off his true range here, with abstract lyrics bridging the divide between what was building up before to what will transpire next. The song feels like a almost wordless mirroring of Bowies thoughts and processes, and is something i honestly find hard to quantify into words. Just give it a listen, it will make you feel one way or another. Up next we have ‘Art Decade’, that perhaps is the most forward thinking of any of the tunes on this record (which is a very hard thing to say considering the entirety of the record). This tune stands the test of time in such a way, its intensive use of drum machines, its heavy deep synths interlaced with light key lines on top. The song switches up in a number of places, but always keeps this consistent thread of thought and tone, the textures delicate and thought provoking. ‘Weeping Wall’ comes next, and just continues on in the same vein. Xylophone lines chime and hum away, providing the basis of the riddim, as wailing synth lines crash and smash their way through the middle. This one takes full advantage of the dynamics, allowing for each instrument to be heard and catered for, a jungles worth of noises. Little elements come in and out of time, drawing on all kinds of other worldy sounds and notions. Its another tune that draws you in and takes you away, content in itself to wrap itself around the ears and continually evolve. This can be almost imagined, like a flower taking bloom, a landscape changing before our very eyes. To draw a close on this experience, we have ‘Subterraneans’. From the off, this song just takes your breath away. Haunting and beauty are retained as key elements, the synths coming in to pull at your heart strings, as the deep vocals add in this dramatic and almost unnerving element into the composition. The paring of vocals and synths is unbelievable, adding so much more to the song, they are seemingly one thing. This is taking ambient music and just throwing it out the window in terms of what it can be, a beatless masterstroke by Bowie. The sax chimes in for good measure, the deep bass line seemingly the only consistent element that chugs away in the distance. The vocals add in some lines of dialogue, like a conversation with the synthesisers, as they wind down and down and down. Like a snapshot, they appear and disappear, just like that. Layering! the layering in this song, I mean jesus. This is fucking epic. The transitions! the composition, everything. Bowie.

Bowie will always be remembered as an artist who defied expectation and logical progression. He reinvented his sound and image on a number of occasions, always staying ahead of himself and even his fans. His constant reinventions allowed himself to remain relevant up until his sad passing, with his records acting as chapter breaks within his extraordinary career. Whilst there were many, many milestones, ‘Low’ remains perhaps his most significant. An album rich in musicality, composition and flow, it was perhaps the most unexpected of his records, a timeless collection of songs that reflected his new circumstances and his emotions. A record of endless soundscapes, visions and directions, where the listener is taken to many realms through the long drawn out synth lead compositions through to the sparse vocal deliveries that hammered home his message. This wasn’t the alien, this wasn’t the saucer eyed dreamer, this wasn’t the Thin White Duke. This was David Bowie, as Bowie, channelling his emotions through a newly found drive to explore the spectrum of what sounds can do to the human mind. A record that still to this day stands out above his own work and indeed music from that time as a treasure, an album that did not have limits placed on it. Just a man, in Berlin, recovering from drug addiction, ready to start anew. Perhaps it was the notion that Bowie himself was looking at his work through new eyes, taking in all that was around him, whereas before the character seemingly lead him down the path to creating music. The essence of sound here acted as his guide, his voice merely a tool in providing the in-between moments, the instruments talking to us more. The future, the past, the present, summed up more so in the music than within Bowie’s appearance. A record that will always be remembered, a record that will always be cherished, discussed and played until the ends of time.

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