It is a challenge to write about David Bowie. What he said about his brother in the song “The Bewlay Brothers,” from Hunky Dory, could very well describe himself: “He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature.”
Here are a few facts. Bowie’s album Low was recorded for the most part in France at the Château d’Hérouville in September of 1976 and finished in Berlin, Germany at Hansa in October. Low was released in January of 1977 and became one of Mr. Bowie’s standout works, not to mention very influential to an oncoming wave of musicians and artists who would define a genre known as Post-Punk.
Low could very well be David Bowie’s most intense record, although his brilliant and haunting final release Blackstar may eventually replace it.
In many ways, Bowie’s previous album Station To Station is the trailer for what was to come with Low. Bowie had barely survived the psychosis brought upon on from cocaine addiction that partially fueled Station To Station. The title track of this record was an indicator of where he was taking his music next. You might want to check out Station to Station as a warm up for an engagement with Low. But wait, there’s even more listening to do.
Before David Bowie recorded Low, he co-wrote and recorded The Idiot with Iggy Pop. Some of the sounds you hear on The Idiot show up again on Low, you will hear it in the drums for sure. In many ways, The Idiot was, sonically, the demo for Low. On some levels, Iggy got the better part of the deal. There are some radical sounds and textures happening on The Idiot that make Low sound almost reserved. Check The Idiot tracks “Nightclubbing” and “Mass Production” as examples. In many ways, The Idiot is one of Bowie’s best albums.
So, before your arrival at Low, check Station To Station, then The Idiot. After that bit incredible listening, drop the needle on Low.
Lyrically, Low depicts paranoia, desperation, isolation, self-loathing and nihilism, which is counter-balanced by the beauty of the instrumental tracks.
Bowie, who had been going from strength to strength on amazing singles like “Changes” and “Young Americans,” took a commercial risk with Low on all levels. First off, the album starts with an instrumental, “Speed of Life.” It’s great of course, but it might not have been what a lot of his more radio-pacified fans were wanting to hear. The second track, “Breaking Glass,” tells the one he singing to not to look at the carpet because he put something awful on it. A lot of Low’s vocal songs, six of the eleven total tracks, are set in small, closed off environments.
In what was the first single, “Sound and Vision,” an absolutely beautiful song that relies on a sympathetic chord structure more than anything, has a lyric that reminds of me a great Kafka quote.
In “Sound and Vision,” Bowie says, “I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.”
Kafka said this: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Low is claustrophobic yet seeks to define and dominate a universe unto itself. Another single off the album, “Be My Wife,” is not as much a love song as it is a plea to not be alone. The permanence of marriage being the key to obliterating loneliness. It is a plea for too much to negate the threat of nothing. On “Always Crashing In the Same Car,” Bowie gets out of the room, only to get in a car and repeat the same act over and over, perhaps hoping there will be a different outcome. The exhausted delivery of the vocal expressing an almost languid surrender to repetition and futility.
There is something else about Low, especially, on the first side, that is worth mentioning. Often, the songs fade in and then fade out again, like a train passing through a station. You will notice that some of the songs are quite short, even for pop music. The way I read that is that, on some songs, Bowie excised verses from the songs for whatever reason. Some of the fades are odd, as at times the songs barely establish themselves and they’re over.
Low also introduces one Brian Eno into the mix. This is important to remember as they would, along with the great Tony Visconti, all be back together for Heroes, of the greatest records of all time.
From Station to Station all the way to 1980’s Scary Monsters, David Bowie was on a risky, artistic roll that almost consumed him more than once. This is listening at its finest.