David Bowie - Low
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Low was a reaction to having gone through that peculiar... that dull greeny-grey limelight of America and its repercussions; pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying “For God's sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place? Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately. Find some people you don't understand and a place you don't want to be and just put yourself into it. Force yourself to buy your own groceries.
What I think [Bowie] was trying to do was to duck the momentum of a successful career. The main problem with success is that it has a huge momentum. It’s like you’ve got this big train behind you and it wants you to carry on going the same way. Nobody wants you to step off the tracks and start looking round in the scrub around the edges because nobody can see anything promising there.
The status quo of fame, of running in front of the train, is untenable for more than extremely short periods of time. You get run over. The songs that make up David Bowie’s Low were originally recorded without plans to make an album (as it was assumed, accurately, that RCA would dislike the direction Bowie was taking), and Bowie and Iggy Pop had fled to Berlin in an attempt to avoid the then-manic pace of their lives and take slightly less drugs; 1976 was the year Bowie jumped off the tracks and started seriously poking around in the bushes.
The Berlin years were ones where Bowie dried out (although relapses with hard drugs would continue for another decade), it taking two years for him to stop having flashbacks. He tried to regain some semblance of normalcy in his life: He separated from his first wife (the marriage was not a good one), began taking his parental responsibilities more seriously, and generally mellowed out. But he was also working and hanging out with people like Pop, Eno and Tony Visconti, and producing arguably the best and weirdest music of his career. Low itself finds Bowie slowly returning to cohesion after the colossal freakout of Station To Station.
First off, he had a sense of humour again; Low’s title is a pun, albeit one you can’t get without seeing the cover, a profile shot of Bowie. It’s not just coincidence that Bowie started keeping a lower profile when he started kicking drugs; they had been necessary to keep up the frantic pace of the pop-star life and in order to get out of his addictive habits, he had to get off the treadmills of fame. No more looking for a hit as big as “Young Americans” or “Golden Years”, at least not for the foreseeable future.
Upon release Low baffled many critics and fans. Instead of Metal Machine Music, Radiohead’s Kid A should have been compared with this album; Station To Station was no OK Computer, but in both cases you had arguably the biggest rock act in the world delivering an eagerly anticipated follow up that left an awful lot of people scratching their heads.
Still, the first side of Low is comprised of seven shorter songs that these days sound perfectly conventional. Bowie was no longer vocally over-emoting; he gives concise, almost monotone readings of the songs. “Sound And Vision” and “Be My Wife” are pleas for simple human connection similar in sentiment to “Stay” from Station To Station but without its air of derangement. “What In The World” and “Breaking Glass” are more strident, spinning dizzily off-kilter, but it sounds like nothing is really at stake for Bowie. Of course, after the open wound of Station To Station, this was for the best. But the distance between Bowie and his lyrics doesn’t hurt the songs. In fact, since Bowie and Eno’s synths are all over the record, and Visconti was learning new and interesting artificial things to do with drums (that great steam hiss on “Sound And Vision” is a heavily gated snare), the artifice of Bowie’s performance worked with the songs instead of neutering them.
Only on “Always Crashing In The Same Car” does his reserve crack a bit, and even then the lyrics are oblique, almost crushingly so. Slightly overlooked, the song is the heart of the first side of Low. Instead of anguish the feel is resignation; it’s not nearly as fraught as “Wild Is The Wind” was. Bowie is still having problems (his oeuvre isn’t exactly devoid of trauma even at the best of times) but for now he faces them instead of running, the first step to dealing with the LA phase of his life.
Songs like “Sound And Vision” might have sounded odd at the time, but now their sleek surface and odd synthetic bits just sound catchy. That catchiness is the most striking thing about the first side of Low. To modern ears it sounds like angular pop. And, of the four Berlin era albums, it’s the most consistent.
Like Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, though, the difference in sides is immense. And the stretch from “Warszawa” through “Subterraneans” was as divisive among Bowie fans as Dylan going electric. If the first half of Low is ahead-of-its-time pop, the second half, comprised of four instrumentals, was near-unprecedented for a pop star of Bowie’s stature.
“Warszawa” is the single finest instrumental Bowie has ever done, homage to the capital of Poland and its people. It features Bowie singing in an imaginary language, although the emotion he puts into it is strong and rich enough that more than one listener has assumed it must mean something. Its slow, graceful arc carries a strong but ineffable emotional charge. It’s not quite the ambient music Eno was making, but neither does it follow the traditional structures of rock music. This is probably due to the fact that when mistakes occurred during takes Eno and Bowie were keeping them, ditching some of the planned parts and then shaping the tracks around the mistakes.
As such, Eno often unjustly got the praise or blame for this half of Low. Yes, Bowie had heard and loved Another Green World, and yes Eno and his synthesizers are all over Low, but as a collaborator, not a guru. Eno didn’t even show up until the time for overdubbing came, and “Warszawa” was the only (co)writing credit he had on the record. I would argue Eno actually had more of an audible impact on the first side, contributing heavily to the fragmented, processed feel of it.
It could be argued that the second side of Low is a continuation of the distance of the first side, hence the lack of lyrics. But, of course, this would only be true if instrumentals couldn’t have an impact all their own. There is a deep melancholy underpinning the four tracks; they deal thematically with life in a Germany scarred with the Berlin Wall, but also with the ridding of Bowie’s LA demons. Low was a necessary part of the recovery process, allowing Bowie to put some space between himself and his old problems. He would save the complete purge, however, for the next record: ”Heroes”.
*From the NME, November 1977.
**From Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story by David Buckley.