This is the most impactful Bowie song to me, and it’s not just because of his death and its use in I Can’t Give Everything Away. This has been one of my favorites for a while, and over the past seven months it’s just gotten more and more powerful. Bowie is known as a vocalist and an interesting pop songwriter, while his Berlin trilogy is heavily Eno-influenced and though it’s not typical of what makes Bowie such a popular musician, it’s part of what makes his legacy so grand. He dabbled, and A New Career in a New Town was a fork in the road of the two paths he would take.
Low, and the Berlin trilogy in general, lives and breathes by its duality. There’s the duality of the Berlin Wall that inspired it, the American and European divide that drove him to it, and the actual divide in pop and instrumental on both Low and “Heroes”. A New Career in a New Town sits right in the middle of that divide, and it doesn’t shy away from every possible sentiment coming with that. It’s an actual combination of the two sounds, opening to the sounds of side two of the record with otherworldly synthesizers and a programmed drumbeat that clashes very quickly with the incredible drums and bass from side one.
The harmonica acts like the vocals, but why I love this song so much is in the way the harmonica speaks much louder than any lyrics possibly could have. I guess that’s why it was so fitting to use them on I Can’t Give Everything Away. See, the harmonica is a melancholy instrument – I mean that’s why they call sadness the blues right? – and it bridges the sadness of eastern Germany with the bright pop instrumentation that gives sound to the optimism of western Germany. It’s wistful for a future or a past that’s just out of reach. You can define it any way you want, but in the end it perfectly represents that feeling of something you can no longer have, leaving your past behind for an uncertain future. But it’s not just wallowing in that feeling, because the pop melody brings that joy of the unknown to the whole experience.
In the end, just like in 1977, Bowie was leaving behind a past that he knew well, a past that led him to a lot of fame and wonder, but also it was leading him out of pain – the pain of drugs and psychosis, the pain of cancer – and into a better place. I’ve cried so much listening to this song, and I think that’s what shows how powerful it is. It’s not a shallow manipulation either, this is an expertly crafted song that sincerely encapsulates what it means to be on the threshold of something new, and it’s wonderful, scary, and beautiful all at once.