Low is my favorite Bowie album. Even when I didn’t listen to him too often, I still listened to Low. It’s so forward-thinking, and what should be dated sounds as fresh to me now as it probably did then. Brian Eno’s touch on this album is really important in defining the direction. I always thought Eno had been the producer, but it was Tony Visconti who produced this, and Eno was just a collaborator. Still, what a collaboration.
You can see a glimpse of Low in Station to Station’s title track and in the film. I saw it once, but not in a long while. The progression to a more worldly or European sound was in S2S, and the lyrics and themes are similar with that song and also the movie. In the movie, Bowie played an alien, and I read that he felt very isolated, and that same sense of isolation is captured on both Station to Station and Low. Where Station to Station felt like a big cry for help beneath all the funk and fun, Low doubles down on the emptiness and loneliness, both in lyrics and atmosphere I feel. When I listen to this album, I feel like I’m walking around Paris like I used to do. The feelings I get here are for a lost time, it’s not a bad feeling because it’s like a moment taken out of time and captures in a bubble, and I think that Bowie might have been feeling that way, too.
The sound of this album is incredible though, isn’t it? It’s hard to really place it, because it’s so unlike anything else Bowie had made. While it doesn’t really sound like Kraftwerk, I think that it has a similar feeling and ambiance, like music that wasn’t made by humans. Station to Station felt very organic, but suddenly Low sounds like it was made by both aliens and robots. Nothing feels human on this album, and in fact this is way more alien than Ziggy Stardust ever was.
It’s funny that the album opens with Speed of Life. It’s like a mocking, “you like funk? we’ll give you funk” and it’s like this perverted form of what funk is, no vocals, and it’s amazing. The way these songs are put together are meticulous. The synths hold down the otherworldliness but it’s not just that, the little synthy effects that sound like machines, and the guitar riff that jams while the synths call back at it, it’s super cool and like ear candy. From the get-go, the drums are different too. On the whole album, they’re big and expansive without going into lazy Fridmann territory.
The next few songs are some of his finest pop songs, even better because they’re so no-nonsense. Every song on Station to Station was about 6 minutes long, but these are like little slices of a robot alien radio station, fading from one hot hook to the next in just a minute or two. Breaking Glass takes a smug guitar hook and serious vocals and slaps some synth conversation into it. I love when he goes “listen” *synth* and then “see” *synth* and the whole time Bowie sounds like a little naughty child. It’s awesome. And as soon as it’s begun, it’s fading out again and What in the World’s wild bubbly synth and mechanical guitar are right in your face. The “so deep in your room” section of the song is so heartbreaking, even more so because Bowie’s vocals are dueling with each other, one that is emotionless and a second shouting one that keeps trying to break through. I love it even knowing what a hard time it was for him.
The real big pop hit though is Sound and Vision. I read that the song originally had more vocals, but Bowie cut out a lot, leaving that opening minute solely to the instruments. I love the drum beat, that little sizzling synth, and the cascading waves of synth too. It’s oh so lovely and just straight up cool. Bowie had always been effortlessly cool, but something about art rock like this is even cooler because it’s so distant. The vocals are super great for how controlled they are. He doesn’t go wild with them, he knows exactly what he wants for each syllable and sound (and visionnnnnnn). He holds the end of the title in this little ringing warble, it’s delightful. The best moment is the trade off where he sings “blue blue that’s the color of my room” and goes down to a lovely mmmmm mmmm mmmmmm while a second spoken vocal comes in for the rest of the verse. Whoever thought of that is a genius, period. The dooo do dooo vocals from Tony Visconti’s wife are also lovely.
I’ve always considered Always Crashing as part of the second side even though it’s followed by the very pop Be My Wife. I can easily imagine Always Crashing without vocals and sounding like the rest of the instrumentals. When I found out that Bowie had died, immediately this song started playing in my head. I don’t know why, maybe because it perfectly captures my feelings at that moment. This song has the feeling of cruising in slow motion to that final crash, and that’s how I felt when I read the statuses on Facebook with those three letters, RIP.
Be My Wife is at first glance a lovely proposition of marriage, but it sounds more like a plea now, like, “give me some meaning”. It’s in the lyrics and the way he holds that “pleeeeeeaaaaase be mine”, and the repetition and ending of just “sometimes you get so lonely”. Gosh.
Then the real magic starts. It’s hard to say that when these art pop songs are so immaculate, but side two is so different. The first half feels emotionless, but as soon as A New Career in a New Town starts, I’m overwhelmed. Especially these days, with the harmonica sample of this in the last song he ever made, and the downbeat mood. It has made me cry every time I’ve heard it since January 10th, including now. It might be my favorite Bowie song, I’m not sure.
This half of the album is where Brian Eno’s influence is most felt. From the story I read, Warszawa was composed maybe entirely by him with just the vocals done by Bowie. That may not be the case, but it doesn’t matter. Warszawa is a thick slice of somberness. I let my imagination go wild on these songs, because they feel even more alien than the first half. For me, this is the heart of Low. It’s looking both forward and backward. I read a phrase in relation to this, that the album is envisioning a future that never happened, so it’s kind of a requiem for that. It’s really fascinating, like looking into a magical orb and seeing what could have been or what might be, like that scene in Lord of the Rings where Galadriel shows Frodo the possible future. It’s not pretty.
The mood of these tracks is a little scary. Art Decade plays on the word “decay”, and it feels like these songs were built up, then left to be worn down by the sands of time before they were released. That’s why Low is so phenomenal. It has a lot of precedent and influences, but it sounds so totally unique. Even ‘Heroes’ pop songs and its own instrumental half don’t sound like Low! I read that Art Decade was originally not going to be on the album, but Brian Eno loved it and layered up so many sounds on it until Bowie acquiesced. I want to hear that original piano version of it.
Weeping Wall changes the mood slightly. It’s still moody, but while the previous two songs wallowed in place and really developed their one moment in time, Weeping Wall feels urgent. It’s a perversion of the melody for Scarborough Fair, funny enough. The bells and chimes add a more natural feel to the song and also make you feel slightly ill at ease, but comfortably ill at ease, like rain or water dripping from the top of a cave. I used to always confuse Weeping Wall and Subterraneans because the former always made me feel like entering a cave.
The final track is absolutely one of Bowie’s best though, objectively so. People are always talking about how amazing Warszawa is, but I don’t ever see too many giving the same love to Subterraneans. It’s like discovering a new world, and it’s a perfect ending to the album. Like, you’ve seen this awful future but there’s a tiny glimmer of hope, like you’ve peaked through to some life. The song is thick with atmosphere, Bowie’s wordless vocals, the synths, the effects, and the sax splits open a hole for itself, it’s really powerful material. I like Bowie’s lyrics even more here than Warszawa (I promise I’m not badmouthing Warszawa on purpose!), and there’s a sound clip buried in the mix that I just heard that sounds like speaking. It’s a hopeful way to end the album.
A lot of these songs are meant to create textures and feelings, especially feelings of loneliness and division, influenced by Berlin and the division of East and West Germany. It’s one of the most interesting albums I’ve heard up to this point in my life and in tough competition for my favorite album, period.