One of the most ludicrous claims in the history of popular music criticism has to be Pitchfork’s assertion that David Bowie’s Low album was the best album of the ’70s.
I don’t know what the best album of the ’70s was because I think all “best of all time” arguments are pointless exercises designed to stir up controversy, lure readers and increase ad revenue while giving people who have no lives a way to fill the empty spaces by arguing about nothing of consequence. I may think Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time; you might argue for Babe Ruth. Who gives a shit? What does it prove? Who decides who’s right?
One thing I do know is that Low was certainly not the best album of the ’70s. I can’t prove my assertion scientifically, but Low certainly doesn’t consistently engage me like London Calling, Who’s Next, Aqualung, Wish You Were Here . . . or Hunky Dory . . . or side two of Ziggy Stardust . . . or Heroes. I could fill this post with oodles of ’70s albums that are far more compelling than this first leg of the so-called Berlin Trilogy (mostly recorded in France).
So if Low isn’t the greatest invention since the hand-held vibrator, what is it?
Low is an album that chronicles a very low period (hence the title) in David Bowie’s life when he was trying to recover from La-La-Land and a nasty cocaine habit. The most engaging aspect of the album is the presence of David Bowie stripped of the various persona he had adopted over the preceding years. Though the lyrics are sparse in the extreme, Bowie comes across as more human than at any time since Hunky Dory, displaying a healthy humility that he had lost during his theatrical period. Low feels like a healing experience, a necessary break from the past that permitted him to seek a way out of the artistic cul-de-sac of the alt-persona era. He immersed himself in the German electronic-progressive scene by reaching out to bands like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, then formed a collaborative partnership with Brian Eno, who had already invented the term “ambient music” to describe his experimental work with electronica. The result of the internal and external influences is an introverted album dominated by song fragments and instrumental musings that range from yawners to keepers.
Some find the dominance of instrumental music on Low frustrating, while millennials who approach Low often feel puzzled and somewhat dismayed by what seems to be incredibly poor production. That impression comes from the fact that the electronic instruments of the ’70s and the techniques used to record them were primitive in comparison to today’s more advanced and sophisticated ways and means. If you approach the instrumentals expecting to hear the recording quality and instrumental clarity of works by Radiohead or Imogen Heap, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The experience of listening to Low is somewhat like the results that come from tinkering around with the various “voices” on an early 21st Century Yamaha keyboard—the oboe kinda sorta sounds like an oboe, the flute has the breathiness but lacks the overtones and the entire string section sounds like shit. I would suggest ignoring the instrumentation (when you can), adopting a forgiving attitude towards the production and focusing your attention on the compositional structure, for there are indeed a couple of pieces worth the effort. Another way to evaluate the quality of the compositions is to find a copy of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 1, “Low,” where the master of film music takes the instrumentals “Subterraneans” and “Warszawa” from the original album and the vocal mood piece “Some Are” (not included in the original Low release) to create a stunningly beautiful, cinematic music experience. The cinematic aspect of the music should not be overlooked, as Bowie had written several of the pieces for the film The Man Who Fell to Earth only to have the producer reject his work. While this brings up another obstacle to appreciating Low, (cinematic music is nearly always better in the context of a film), Glass has consistently and successfully overcome that obstacle, and I encourage listeners to find a copy of the symphony to better appreciate the solid foundations of those two instrumental pieces.
Low opens with an instrumental, one for which Bowie originally intended to write lyrics but he was hampered by a still-recovering brain and couldn’t find the right words. Too bad, because “Speed of Life” really doesn’t work all that well as an instrumental, and the overlay of synthesizer and Chamberlin over traditional instruments makes for a very messy sound. The natural instruments generally outshine the electronics, with Carlos Alomar and George Murray making tasty contributions . . . but the drums . . . well, that’s a story in itself. Producer Tony Visconti applied a harmonizer to Dennis Davis’ drums, creating a cavernous sound that became all the rage with producers, much in the same way the gated drum sound created by Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel caused similar excitement. To my ears, the drums turn the mix into something sloppy, marked by excessive bleed . . . but I’m a dinosaur when it comes to drums, generally preferring the natural sounds of unfiltered skins to electronically enhanced percussion. The song isn’t half bad and has a solid, sexy, boozy feel to it, but I find the drums and electronics annoying and the lack of lyrics a missed opportunity.
There are many missed lyrical opportunities on Low, as Bowie was going through a phase where he was “intolerably bored with conventional narrative rock and roll lyrics.” The strongest set of lyrics consists of the nine truncated lines and forty-five words of “Breaking Glass”:
Baby, I’ve been
Breaking glass in your room again
Don’t look at the carpet
I drew something awful on it
You’re such a wonderful person
But you got problems
I’ll never touch you
These cocaine memories are delivered in a naughty boy tone that hints at the first signs of healing: a healthy sense of humor. The minimalism works well here, capturing the anti-social behavior of the addict who redefines the problem as the uptight attitude of the straight embracing a bourgeois orientation towards material possessions. I rather like the song and David’s playful vocal; its one-minute-and-fifty-three seconds of recording time classifies it as a fragment along the lines of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” (without an elaborate supporting suite). I’m okay with that—though I’m not a fan of Abbey Road, those two moments raise my spirits, as does this tiny flash of wit.
“What in the World” features a noisy, sloppy arrangement that I find quite irritating, but I find some solace in the lyrics and the theme of the real person emerging from a socially induced façade. The parallels between the storyline and Bowie’s experience in the glamorous, drug-filled façade of Los Angeles are obvious, especially in the denouement:
To be real me, to the real me
Under the cool, under the cool and under having a ball
What you gonna say to the real me, to the real me
From all I’ve read on the subject, this could be Bowie talking to himself, wondering if he still had the capability of connecting with his “real me.”
I find no such solace in “Sound and Vision,” a song that sounds like an electronically enhanced throwback to Young Americans with lyrics lame enough to suit a disco crowd. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is far superior, a healthy dose of self-reflection concerning the dead-end of his L. A. experience. The mood established by David’s introverted, I-can’t-believe-this-was-me vocal, the repeated figures of electronica and the swerving tones of Ricky Gardiner’s guitar capture both the maddening uncertainty associated with a loss of personal control and a sense of hope that one can change the drug-driven script. Based on a real-life event where David crashed his Mercedes into the car of a dealer who had allegedly ripped him off and then spent the rest of the evening driving around in circles in an underground garage, “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is a tale of that rock-bottom place the addict has to find before recovery is possible.
When you hit rock bottom, the loneliness is often the most unbearable part of the experience. David’s wish for a steady companion is simply and beautifully expressed in “Be My Wife,” a song that starts as a freewheeling bash with its ragtime piano but turns into something richer and deeper once he enters with his slightly forlorn vocal. The tension between music and vocal tone is resolved as the song progresses, settling into a minor key pattern that emphasizes the sad state of affairs. This is the least-electronic song on the album, but I disagree with the critics who describe it as the most conventional—the tension between instrumentation and vocal lifts “Be My Wife” above the run-of-the-mill.
We now move forward into instrumental-only territory (not counting the scraps of nonsense lyrics on two tracks) with “A New Career in a New Town,” a piece that works on a structural basis with the introductory mood of anxious uncertainty captured in a soundscape mingling a melancholy flute-like sound with synthesized counterpoint, followed by music that attempts to reflect the exciting possibilities of newness. The problem is in the execution of the second section, where the instruments sound harsh and buzzy and the enhanced drums are placed too far forward in the mix. “Warszawa” is more successful in capturing the cold, gray mood of communist Poland in the early ’70s with its ominous bass tone foundation eventually supporting a synthesized harmonic counterpoint expressing the sad dreariness of it all. A key change accompanies a textural shift at about the four-minute mark, where we hear the sound of the human voice enmeshed in deep bass tones, cueing Bowie’s “lyrics.” Those lyrics are not in Polish, but pseudo-Eastern-European-sounding syllables—more like a chant from the era in Polish history when the West Slavic peoples migrated into the era, around 500 A.D. The melody was influenced by a Polish song performed by the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble that Bowie picked up during a visit to Warsaw in 1973, and though the lyrics to “Warszawa” may not be authentic, Bowie certainly captured the evocative essentials. The piece ends with a reprise of the second section, giving this mood piece holistic credibility.
“Art Decade” attempts to capture the mood of another place, in this case, a street in West Berlin. The piece was originally slotted for the shit pile because the simple piano arrangement wasn’t working, but Brian Eno came in and added some layers, then Bowie added some more and voilà, “Art Decade” made the cut. I think they should have left this rather tedious reflection in the shit pile. “Weeping Wall” gives Berlin another go, a piece oddly based on “Scarborough Fair” that introduces the basic melody of that tiresome old chestnut on what sounds like an electronic kazoo. Absolutely dreadful.
Bowie and Eno saved the best for last with “Subterraneans,” a third piece on the Berlin experience, this time attempting to evoke the feelings of those who found themselves stuck in East Berlin after the erection of the Berlin Wall. The base composition was designed during the Station to Station period, but Bowie and Eno added numerous overlays and edits during the Low sessions. Though “Subterraneans” serves as the closer on Low, Philip Glass used it for the first movement of the Low Symphony (with Warszawa as the third and final movement). Though I strongly prefer the authentic sounds of flutes and strings courtesy of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, the Low version is easily the best-engineered instrumental of the bunch, strengthened immeasurably by the finest saxophone solo of Bowie’s career. The heavy bass tones and background synth “orchestra” successfully project the emotional power in the piece, and though I do prefer the Glass version, I can certainly appreciate what Bowie and Eno created.
Low may not be the greatest album of the decade or even the best in Bowie’s catalog, but it does have value as a story of artistic entrenchment. David Bowie chose to leave the hellscape of his life in L.A. and his shifting identities, leaving commercial considerations for another day to explore different ways of expressing himself through music. This act of reinvention would inform all of his later work, all the way through the life-closing experience of Blackstar. It’s too bad that Bowie fanatics have made such a big deal about Low, distracting listeners from the more authentic narrative of an artist in search of self and new pathways to creation.