Review Summary: Bowie's segway into the Berlin era turns out to be a fan favourite and critically acclaimed masterpiece.
The cocaine fuelled Station to Station in 1976 was the bridge between Bowie's glam and soul days and his Berlin era, named as such because Bowie moved to West Berlin to escape his drug-addled existence in LA. Bowie became enamoured of the region for its music and art scenes and its roots in expressionism - Berlin was for Bowie a sanctuary from himself, a place where he could bask in anonymity.
Low in 1977 was the first of the Berlin Trilogy featuring Bowie's collaboration with Brian Eno, the godfather of ambient music. Low was the perfect vehicle for Eno to direct his sonic explorations, and for Bowie to channel his anguish from his past life and paint a picture of his world at the time. As such, Low is starkly personal - the album name aptly describes Bowie at that point in life. And as Bowie's moniker of "musical chameleon" implies, he is a trend-setter and Low certainly doesn't deviate from this. Here we see Bowie through his krautrock influences as he embraces synthesizers and ambience amongst other things. Low was produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti. Although Eno is responsible for co-writing only one song, he provided a lot of the direction and inspiration for the second half of the album.
With shimmering synths and rocking energy, the theatrical Speed of Life kicks off the album and provides only a taste of what is to come. Low defies classification – tracks like Breaking Glass and Be My Wife demonstrate that even on an album as eclectic and innovative as Low, the rhythm section of George Murray and Dennis Davis are uncompromising in groove. Tracks like What in the World and the intriguing folk-meets-disco A New Career in a New Town demonstrate that Bowie can seamlessly meld angular guitars, synths and harmonicas. And even through this pastiche of sounds and ideas, Bowie manages to reach the peak of vibrant pop perfection with his single, Sound and Vision. Always Crashing in the Same Car is my favourite track of Side A - quite simply, it describes Bowie's self-destructive and cyclic cocaine addiction. It is a bleak and bitter tirade with an exquisitely melancholic guitar solo.
Whereas Side A is all about Bowie and consists of sub 4 minute songs spanning pop, prog, glam, folk and funk, and in Bowie's words "all the self-pitying crap", Side B takes a complete 180 and features Bowie's "reactions to places" in the form of ambient soundscapes. Warszawa, co-written by Eno, is the first of these. Bowie intended to capture his visit to desolate Warsaw in sound and succeeds to an almost synaesthetic extent with this incredibly powerful and dense track. The rest of Side B is similar in form. Art Decade is an eerie cavernous track, written to portray West Berlin as a dying city. Weeping Wall is a bizarre adaptation of Scarborough Fair with twisted synths and an ‘anti-solo’ reminiscent of Robert Fripp (who would later collaborate with Bowie). Subterraneans is a rather harrowing depiction of the people trapped in East Berlin after the erection of the Berlin Wall.
Fast-forward 32 years and Low is still startlingly fresh and replete with originality. Its dichotomy of avant-pop and ambient music eschews any kind of convention. The influence of Low can easily be detected in a great deal of music released in the decade following, especially in the realms of post-punk and new wave. Bands and musicians citing Low as an influence include Joy Division (originally named Warsaw), Human League, Depeche Mode, Radiohead, NIN and Phillip Glass. Low was even influential for Tony Visconti’s revolutionary deep-treated drum sound. Low was ahead of its time and near flawless in execution.