David Bowie – Low
His 1977 album Low was conceived of and released at a strange time for David Bowie. Over the last 10 years he’d released many albums, twisting himself from a whimsical English pop singer to a rock star from outer space named “Ziggy Stardust” and even briefly dallied with American R&B before reimagining himself as “The Thin White Duke.”
For his next move, all that was out the window and Bowie relocated to Berlin and France to record Low in collaboration with Brian Eno with participation by Iggy Pop. The resulting album—it’s A-side stuffed with taut, sharp, sleekly modern short songs and its B-side four slow instrumental soundscapes—was brilliant and undeniably one of Bowie’s best. Upon release, it tanked. Bowie was pleased.
It was, as the cliché goes, ahead of its time. The first song, “Speed of Life,” though irresistible, had no words and a squalling synth throughout. Where there were words here, they could be disturbing, like, “Baby, I’ve been breaking glass in your room again, listen, don’t look at the carpet, I drew something awful on it.” One of Bowie’s best, biggest songs, “Sound and Vision,” is right here but annoyed listeners may have simply missed it, particularly since it takes a full minute and 27 seconds to get to Bowie’s first line.
The slow, creeping “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is a masterwork of perfectly placed, futuristic instrumentation that artfully uses reckless driving as a metaphor for making the same mistakes over and over again. Meanwhile, the beautiful, mid-tempo instrumental “A New Career In A New Town” manages, with no words, to portray the rush of optimism that comes with a fresh start.
The instrumental B-side must have seen baffling at the time, sure. It’s one of those things you’ve got to find the right time, place and mood to listen to. It’s best taken back-to-back with the B-side of Bowie’s next album “Heroes,” which also featured instrumentals in a similar vein, and maybe with some of Eno’s Ambient albums on hand as well. If you like Low, it’s the first album in what’s called Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy,” the next two albums being “Heroes” and Lodger. Some people get so immersed in this period of Bowie’s discography that they find no need for anything else he ever did.