25 Masterworks: David Bowie – Low
My Spin on Masterworks: 6 of 25
In 1975, David Bowie’s skyrocketing star had reached its zenith, but the man himself was approaching physical and emotional overload. Nutritionally malnourished and reeling from a snowballing cocaine addiction, Bowie’s descent into the Thin White Duke persona of the Station to Station years was tearing apart both mind and body. While his projects continued to arouse acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, Bowie was transforming into the same vampiric presence he flaunted during live outings: a skeletal, paranoid figure gradually withdrawing into his own psyche. After completing his 1976 White Light tour, Bowie fled to deepest Europe in order to escape his demons, accompanied by Iggy Pop, Coco Schwab, and eventually, his creative personnel.
After several months of soaking up the vibrant nightlife of the German capital, the teams settled in Hansa to undertake recording duties for Iggy Pop’s seminal The Idiot, but it was only after relocating to France’s Château d’Hérouville that the bulk of Bowie’s eleventh album was cut. Amid bitter divorce proceedings, the trials of kicking his drug habit, and cutting himself off from the world in which he’d been made a star, Bowie tortuously began work on new material. Almost exactly a year after the release of Station to Station on RCA, Low arrived; an album teeming with ghosts, yet ghosts which had been wrangled into something truly transcendental.
Whereas Station to Station shimmered into view through a fog of coke powder, Low awakens with the sound of a shambling engine clanking to infernal life. The crazed, stuttering thunder of ‘Speed of Life’ immediately signals a new departure for Bowie, its bold and brazen atmosphere defying lyrics as it leads the march into 38 minutes of tormented, confused, but ultimately magical noise. As with its parent album, the sonic tone of ‘Speed of Life’ is unsettling yet intoxicating, immeasurably enriched by Tony Visconti’s fizzing production; the biggest talking point of which is the Eventide Harmoniser, which worked to pitch-shift Bowie’s caterwauling and gave Dennis Davis’ gated snare drum its signature bite. It was the pioneering of such techniques which established the groundwork for the 1980s to follow, with Brian Eno’s creative assistance inspiring Bowie himself to push the envelope even further on subsequent releases.
Much of the discourse surrounding Low is mired in the tired fact that it’s a record of two distinguished halves: the “song”-oriented Side A, and the ghostly ambience of Side B. While this may be the simplest means of defining how these eleven tracks are sequenced, their chronology is more interesting to pore over when one considers them in a single sitting. While the jagged squalls of ‘Speed of Life’ are a far cry from the ashen desolation of ‘Subterraneans’, Low somehow shifts from one extreme to the other with electrifying kineticism, sounding disjointed but never messy. It’s the sound of a musical mind collapsing and expanding simultaneously, synthesising everything from funk-rock to art-pop to choral ambience.
Shortly following the album’s release, Bowie summarised his thought process once he had settled in Europe. “It was like, ‘Isn’t it great being on your own? Let’s just pull down the blinds and fuck ’em all.’ Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things. Anything else, you don’t mention – and in the end you produce Low.” The important things in this instance are confined to a mere five tracks, wherein Bowie articulates them into authentic language, and even these are fragmentary, cryptic. The remainder plays out in sound itself, where emotion bleeds through the icy synthesisers and walloping drum patterns like a heart threatening to burst through a ribcage.
Perhaps due to this more reserved aesthetic, on first listen, parts of Low sound skewed to the point of bewilderment, but this mood is one of despair veiled beneath the eccentricities of the experimentation. The jaunty ‘Sound and Vision’ is a paean to self-imposed exile, the sound of Bowie drawing those blinds and grappling with a crippling case of writer’s block. The awkward drama of ‘Be My Wife’ is stuffed with desperate, childlike pleas for companionship, and the stuttering ‘What in the World’ and ‘Breaking Glass’ both document attempts at human reconnection, through entirely disconnected means. Both find Bowie attempting to slur his way into coherent communication, but failing to grasp a humane mode of transmission. “I’m in the mood for your love!” he wails repeatedly in the former, staggering through a universe which he can seemingly no longer traverse with any semblance of charm or tact.
The opening and closing portents of Low are particularly telling. ‘Breaking Glass’ proffers an image of the Thin White Duke’s glacial conduct crumbling into psychotic mania. The snowblind sheen of Bowie’s mid-70s endeavours is shattered into a mosaic of breaking glass, spilled secrets, and dishevelled, burnt-out guitars which sting with all the ferocity of the simultaneous British punk explosion. And then, depending on how one chooses to decipher the warbles across ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Subterraneans’, the final lyric on the album arrives barely halfway through Low’s runtime: “sometimes you get so lonely”. It’s a perfect ellipsis on which to leave listeners dangling as Bowie takes off with the achingly fragile ‘A New Career in a New Town’, before the sheer majesty of ‘Warszawa’ descends to close off any chance of returning to poppier terrain. Here is real horror, real anguish, real history as channelled through Bowie’s awestruck vision of Cold War Europe: a landscape as ravaged and broken as the musician’s own body during the period.
There really is so much to dissect about Low, from its backstory to its critical reception, its influence on Bowie’s trajectory as well as the development of synth-pop as a whole. It’s wired, it’s humorous, it’s mind-bogglingly inventive and forward-thinking. But Low is also emblematic of a terrifying, isolated odyssey into the abyss. Bowie may have been well and truly fucked when making Station to Station, but it’s Low which plumbs far greater depths of desolation. In 2001, Bowie himself commented on the creative process in an interview with Uncut’s Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton. “It was a dangerous period for me,” he admitted. “Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself struggling to get well.” True, escaping to Berlin did allow Bowie time to heal, but the word “struggle” is crucial here.
Low is an album of retreat: Bowie’s retreat from the cataclysmic pressure of Western expectations, his retreat from conventional methods of songwriting, and a retreat from the demons of his own making. It could almost be considered as a retreat from humanity itself, but beneath its icy exterior, this music burns with the heat of terribly vivid emotions, too powerful to be articulated through traditional means. Low served to be the final nail in the coffin of Ziggy Stardust – as perhaps reflected on its album sleeve, Bowie had left his past behind, and he wasn’t looking back.Low 1 – Speed of Life
2 – Breaking Glass
3 – What in the World
4 – Sound and Vision
5 – Always Crashing in the Same Car
6 – Be My Wife
7 – A New Career in a New Town
8 – Warszawa
9 – Art Decade
10 – Weeping Wall 11 – Subterraneans
Posted on August 1, 2014, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged 1977, 25 Masterworks, Berlin Trilogy, Breaking Glass, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Low, Sound and Vision, Tony Visconti, Warszawa. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.