Forty years ago today, on January 14, 1977, David Bowie released Low. I was five years old at the time, and not much into progressive pop experimentalism; it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I was exposed to this album and most of the rest of his catalog. Therefore, this record, for me, has always been viewed within the framework of the Berlin Trilogy, as it had come to be known, its accompanying albums being the iconic “Heroes” (released later in 1977) and Lodger (1979).
Low is the first in the trilogy and opens with “Speed Of Life.” Unlike the more atmospheric and experimental instrumentals on the second side of the album, “Speed of Life” feels like a pop song, just awaiting lyrics. It is upbeat and high energy, rolling along on a strong lead guitar; driving drum track and underlying synths giving it a slightly futuristic flavor. The music itself creates the feeling of speed alluded to in the title.
The album doesn’t have a standout hit like “Golden Years” from 1976 or the title track from “Heroes”; the closest it comes is the swinging, jangly “Sound And Vision,” a song which barely caused a ripple in the U.S. The a-side, however, is loaded with pop gems: the brief, slightly spooky “Breaking Glass,” the urgent, not-quite-love song “Be My Wife,” even the instrumental that closes side one, “A New Career In A New Town,” is an expertly crafted rock song awash in pop sensibilities.
What really sets this album apart from the prior year’s Station To Station is its second side. From the first notes, there’s a sense of foreboding to the (mostly) instrumental second side. “Warszawa” plods along heavily sans melody, a barren nightmarescape of desolation. Synth pads in the second third of the song add a bit of brightness, but they are a thin watery light shining through clouds of smoke. These give way to a brief period of chanting/singing in what I believe to be Polish – at any rate, indecipherable to me. The song ends without resolution; it is a bleak juxtaposition to the lighthearted pop of side one.
“Art Decade“ follows. Performed primarily on synthesizers, this song again evokes atmosphere, though not as darkly. It is meditative, ambient, the song structure elusive, the notes sparse. “Warszawa” was co-written with Brian Eno, but “Art Decade” carries with it a fair amount of the latter’s influence. “Weeping Wall” continues in the same vein with some choral accents and softly wailing guitar in the mix. The album concludes with the dark and brooding “Subterraneans,” much more in the vein of the first track on this side.
For whatever reason, over the past two and a half decades, I have come to associate this record far more with its second side. I love “Breaking Glass” and “What In The World” and “Sound And Vision,” but for some reason, I never think of them as being a part of this album. David Bowie has said that the move to Germany (where this was recorded) was done in part to help break the cocaine addiction that had plagued him for years. As the first album in his Berlin Trilogy, I always view Low as a sort of recovery record, a documentation of sorts of his struggle to transcend his demons. And the atmosphere and overtones of the second side of the record definitely seem to support this interpretation.
This is not the easiest David Bowie album to get to know and love. I am quite certain that the first time I listened through this album, my initial reaction was, “Wow, the second half of this CD is just plodding dreck.” However, the more I listen to it, the more rewarding I find it. Now the second half is how I define this album, what sets it apart from any of his others. Like so much of what he created, there are layers buried in his work that can only be reached once I’ve dug past the surface.