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David Bowie - Low CD (album) cover


David Bowie


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4.07 | 373 ratings

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4 stars Somewhere around 2004, the music review site Pitchfork polled its various writers/contributors to put together a list of the top 100 albums of the 1970's. I had some issues with some of the results, of course (a shortage of prog rock, rating some albums far lower than I would, rating others far higher than I would), but overall I didn't think it was a terrible list. One result absolutely flabbergasted me at first, though: the #1 album on the list was Low. As I thought about the process of putting together this kind of group list, though, the result actually started to make sense to me; while it was unlikely that Low rated in the top 5 or 10 of very many individual lists, it was probably present in almost all of them, and in group rankings that matters a lot to final placement. Low, ultimately, does not feel like an all-time great album to me; it feels like a, "oh yeah, I don't love it, but it's a really good album with no major flaws, I'd feel pretty stupid if I didn't include it on my list" kind of album.

This album, of course, marks the beginning of Bowie's collaboration with the great Brian Eno, known as the "Berlin Trilogy" due to Bowie's relocation from L.A. to Germany. Eno did not serve as the album's producer (that was Bowie himself and old friend Tony Visconti), nor did he do much songwriting (his only formal cowriting credit here is on "Warszawa"), but his impact was felt nonetheless as a crucial sounding board and guide for Bowie's ideas. The general approach was to take ideas that had previously been introduced by various krautrock bands (not to mention Eno himself) and to try and fuse them with Bowie's more commercialized sensibilities. This isn't to say, of course, that this is anywhere near a commercial-oriented album; to the contrary, the entire second side is basically ambient music, while the first half is bookended by instrumentals and full of, how can I say this, "jagged" instrumental textures. Yet the tracks on the first side are all rather short, showing an attempt to take the ideas that influenced him and chop them up into something easier to digest. For the most part, he definitely succeeded; all of the beeps and boops are fused with an amazing drum sound, and on the first side, when the goal is memorability, the songs tend to be catchy more often than not.

Ultimately, the album consists of 11 tracks that I like, and not a single one that I love or would call a classic. On the first side, what throws me off the most is the perpetual feeling that I'm listening to songs that are only 85% finished, even though I know that every single one has been polished and finished into exactly what Bowie wanted. The "regular" rock instruments all sound simultaneously raw and processed, and while the combination is fun, it's also a way I don't always like. The melodies, as much as I enjoy them, still leave me with a, "Wait, what? The song's finished already?" feeling when a given song ends; again, it's a neat effect, but this is a case where neatness doesn't leave me feeling entirely satisfied. Plus, I'm not sure I really like Bowie's singing in much of this side; except for when he sounds completely ridiculous ("Breaking Glass" and "Be My Wife," perhaps not coincidentally the ones I enjoy most on side, even if I still don't quite adore them), I find myself almost forgetting I'm listening to songs that actually have vocals. This might have been the intended effect, but again, that doesn't mean I have to love it.

Still, like I said, I like all of the songs on the first side more than not. The opening instrumental "Speed of Life" (featuring the "Hot Blooded" riff) immediately makes it clear what kind of album this will be; "normal" foundations messed up as much as possible in the details by a fascinating drum sound, a bunch of great synth sounds alternately carrying the melody and giving texture, and guitars treated into oblivion. "Breaking Glass" may last less than two minutes, but it has the album's funniest lyric ("Don't look at the carpet/I drew something awful on it"), and the combination of great hard rock (from the guitar and the drums) with goofy synths makes an unforgettable impact. "What in the World" features noises that would later make their way into Pac-man, underpinning a bunch of lyrics that make little sense when read as text but still create an overall sense of paranoia and (possibly, I'm not sure) desires for a girl. The best part of the song, anyway, is the swooping guitar noises that pop up briefly in the second half before heading into a more conventional guitar part.

"Sound and Vision" is often singled out as the album's best track, but I've never really seen why it's especially better than everything else around it. The main guitar lick is a simplistic marvel, and I like the descending synths near the beginning, but the "main" song portion just seems like a typical Low pop song, and nothing more remarkable. "Always Crashing in the Same Car" would probably impact me more if Bowie had been able to better articulate his vocals; as is, I have to rest my enjoyment on the processed guitar playing (almost sounding like Dave Gilmour in a couple of moments) and the melody. I've read the lyrics, and they're plenty emotional (a great look at self-frustration about making mistakes over and over), but some better singing wouldn't have hurt. "Be My Wife" is a standout if only because of the fantastic repeated ascening deep piano line, but the vocal melody is a minor marvel as well, and almost enough to make me single it out as especially great. And finally, "A New Career in a New Town" closes things out with another instrumental, featuring some nice harmonica interplay with a rather moving synth line. It's not superb, but it's pretty nice.

The second half is 4 lengthy ambient drones (with some wordless vocals in the first track and jumbled lyrics at the very end of the last track), and this is where opinions split a lot. I, of course, have no problems with ambient music, so dismissing these tracks is out of the question, but I don't love these as much as I do the best stuff on "Heroes". The one portion that reaches up to no-doubt-about-it greatness is the first two-thirds of "Warszawa," which has to be one of the most depressing and moving themes (and to think it's just based around A-B-C on a keyboard, before changing keys) I've ever heard. So sue me, I'm a sucker for a mellotron/chamberlain flute part over well-arranged synths. I think the track weakens a little bit once the wordless harmonized vocals come in, but not too badly.

The other three tracks are decent enough. "Art Decade" starts off with an effect I remember from Another Green World (on "In Dark Trees" if I remember correctly), and centers around a single theme designed to portray the decaying culture of West Berlin. "Weeping Wall" is a tweaked adaptation of "Scarborough Fair" over busy percussion (I'm pretty sure I hear a lot of xylophones and vibrophones in there) with lots of synth and guitar noises thrown in, and the closing "Subterraneans" depicts the hopelessness of East Berlin through a lot various ambient tricks. None of these, frankly, are among the very best ambient tracks with which Eno would ever involve himself, but they're not among the worst either, and they definitely work as part of an overall suite.

Overall, I'll never quite adore this album, but I still think it's extremely nice, and I'm happy to listen to it from time to time. Don't get it before the albums that bookend it, though.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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