Happy 40th anniversary to David Bowie's Low, originally released January 14, 1977.
David Bowie’s death last January at the age of 69 following an 18-month private battle with cancer left a chasmal void in our hearts and the world of music. With a recording career that formally began in the mid-1960s and subsequently spanned six different decades, the uncompromisingly chameleonic singer-songwriter was the personification of artistic experimentation and reinvention. Further evidence of Bowie's unparalleled penchant for musical adventure and fearlessness surfaced in inspired form across the sublime swan song Blackstar, his haunting twenty-fifth and final studio album released on his 69th birthday (January 8th), just two days before his passing (January 10th).
As his idiosyncratic personal aesthetics and style evolved throughout his life, so did his music, from his early devotion to rock, folk and blues to his forays into glam rock, funk, soul and Krautrock during his hyper-productive ‘70s period to his new wave and pop dalliances in the ‘80s to his more recent excursions into avant-garde strains of electronica and jazz. His iconoclastic approach to songcraft was a fearless one, as he continually challenged himself to push the boundaries of his own creative powers, while refusing to conform to anyone’s expectations beyond his own.
Not surprisingly, the critically acclaimed, Mercury Prize nominated Blackstar has been reinterpreted through a modified lens since Bowie's death. Presumably, the reevaluation of Blackstar within the broader context of his musical legacy has also prompted casual and diehard Bowie fans alike to revisit and rediscover the two dozen long players that preceded it. While his inventive 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is universally regarded by critics as his finest moment on wax, we suspect that far less consensus about his best work exists among the millions of devoted Bowie aficionados worldwide.
In our case here at Albumism, we can easily rattle off a handful of the Thin White Duke’s long players that belong among our favorite albums of all time. But if pressed to single out just one that stands slightly above the rest in our minds, our allegiance skews toward 1977’s Low, the ambitiously conceived album that launched Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” that also includes Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979).
Recorded in France and Germany, the Tony Visconti produced, Brian Eno influenced album is a work of two contrasting sides that coalesce to sound markedly different than any of Bowie’s LPs before or after. The A-side is a collection of short melodic synth-pop tunes (“Sound and Vision,” “Be My Wife”) bookended by two dense instrumental tracks “Speed of Life” and “A New Career in a New Town.” The latter serves as an autobiographical nod to Bowie’s relocation from Los Angeles to Berlin, a move prompted in large part by his desire to kick the self-destructive cocaine habit he had cultivated while living in the City of Angels during the mid ‘70s.
The B-side is comprised of four elegiac instrumentals that take obvious cues from Eno’s atmospheric classic Another Green World (1975). The cinematic soundscapes evolved from music that Bowie had originally (and unsuccessfully) pitched for the soundtrack to the 1976 science-fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth, which Bowie starred in. Haunting fare, indeed.
In a 1999 interview with Uncut Magazine, Bowie confided that recording Low in conjunction with moving to Germany provided much-needed light in a very dark period of his life. He explains that “It was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well. Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing.”
Certainly an anomalous song suite that defied the prototypical rock-pop album template, but its boldness is precisely what makes Low such a fascinating listen and Bowie’s most rewarding of his multiple masterpieces.