WHEN David Bowie returned to Saturn from whence he came on January 10th, ‘low’ would be one of the most appropriate words to describe the ensuing mood of the world’s population. How appropriate that Low, one of two Bowie records from the same year, was released this week back in 1977. Still retreating from the spectre of Ziggy Stardust and rebelling against the Philadelphia soul of Young Americans, Bowie decamped to Berlin and began to carve out another new niche for himself from the wings of synth-driven Krautrock.
Low might seem like a challenge for those who are only familiar with the glam-rock era of Bowie, or even the comforting dance-pop of Let’s Dance. The music here is angular and, on Side Two tracks like ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Subterraneans’, even intimidating, their washes of electronic ambience speaking to the oppressive, uncertain atmosphere beneath the Berlin Wall. The fragmented, shorter snatches of songs on Side One also underline Bowie’s disjointed mental processes as he struggled to kick his exorbitant cocaine addiction.
Though he shed the guise of the Thin White Duke from Station to Station, Bowie retained most of his band from that album, with long-time collaborator Carlos Alomar among the returning members. Most vitally, however, was the arrival of Roxy Music’s Brian Eno on keyboards. Eno, playing on half of the album’s tracks and snapping up a co-write credit on ‘Warszawa’, brings the cool, static ambience of his 70s solo work to Bowie’s wounded compositions, bringing depth and texture to tracks like ‘Weeping Wall’ and ‘Art Decade’.
Some tracks were originally meant for The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the influence of Bowie’s icy alien from the film is immediate and obvious. Low is a chronicle of self-destruction, no question; from the slow-paced, defeated burnout of ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, Bowie singing plaintively over a roiling, fuzzed out guitar, to the mournful harmonica of ‘A New Career in a New Town’, this is the sound of a man struggling to regain control.
‘Breaking Glass’ is a fractured, disjointed paragraph of a song, Bowie’s minimalist lyrics giving way to stop-start percussion and a snaking guitar line. ‘What in the World’ is similarly broken up, pitched halfway between paranoia and a desperate need for communication, the words revolving around disconnected phrases and Bowie’s legion of overdubbed vocalisms, repeating “ah, ah, ah” into the fade-out.
Though the album is fraught with self-reflexive anguish, Low retains some warmth. The glittering guitar, throbbing bass and female backing vocals on ‘Sound and Vision’, for instance, belie the images of “pale blinds / drawn all day” that Bowie conjures up, singing of “solitude”. The following track, ‘Be My Wife’, is similarly musically upbeat and comes the closest to resembling a traditional rock song. Again, however, the lyrics have been inferred to indicate a last-ditch appeal to Bowie’s then-wife, Angela, to “stay with me”.
Credit must go to another long-time Bowie collaborator, Tony Visconti, whose production expertise proved invaluable, helping to create a snare drum sound that inspired other producers to phone him, begging him to divulge the secret. Said secret was an Eventide Harmonizer; by lowering the pitch and then adding feedback to the result, Visconti achieved a chasmic depth. The sound is heard throughout the album, and it’s inextricable.
Similarly impressive is the layers of Bowie vocals that build and crash around ‘Warszawa’, an otherwise instrumental track that throbs beneath the weight of Bowie’s lilting, maqam-esque singing. It’s an oppressive, brooding piece of music that’s enhanced by its immediate follow-up, ‘Art Decade’. Clustered around a measured, quarter-note synth melody, the track is again founded upon textured, nuanced coatings of keyboards and electronic sounds that sound like animal cries. ‘Subterraneans’, the album closer, is a natural companion to ‘Warszawa’, adding that piece’s vocal layers to waves of pitched synth and Bowie’s sharp saxophone wails.
So profound is the melancholy at the heart of Low that it’s hard not to be invested within it oneself. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking record that’s made all the more poignant by the sudden, tragic death of its author. This was the moment that David Bowie made the transition from weird pop star to a truly pioneering artiste, bending the ensuing crest of the mainstream to his will. If not his best-selling album, it’s certainly his most important as the benchmark for the evolutions to come. Here was the chameleon at his lowest ebb; history proved that he came out fighting.