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Low
David Bowie

RCA 2030
Released: January 1977
Chart Peak: #11
Weeks Charted: 19

David BowieDavid Bowie has always been concerned with masks. The most memorable image from The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roeg's film from which this album cover has been chosen, showed Bowie peeling off the synthetic earth-face which served as his disguise. His music also has been defined by its various personas; he has moved rom Dylan to Lou Reed and from the Stones to androgynous funk with calculated and sometimes inspired dexterity.

On Low, Bowie meets Eno, and the result might have been entitled Another Green Ziggy. Eno, who cowrote only one tune with Bowie but plays throughout, is also a manipulator of masks, but this image as an avant-garde dabbler has always been more enigmatic than Bowie's. Both of them create with the sleight of hand of a shell-game swindler, but it's much easier to catch Bowie in the act.

David Bowie - Low
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Side one, where Bowie works within more conventional rock trappings, is superior to side two's experiments simply because a band forces discipline into Bowie's writing and performance. Sandwiched between a pair of spacey instrumentals are five brief but well-defined pop songs combining quirky lyrics and a band driven by sharply cracking drums and riffing guitars. At their best, the songs are funny -- only a stoneface could resist smiling when hearing Bowie's hurdy-gurdy voice sing "You're such a wonderful person, but you got problems" in "Breaking Glass" -- and the band's squeaky performances match the lyrical playfulness.

When Bowie stretches out on side two, however, his mask begins to slip. The four pieces strain to evoke the spacey planes of modern electronic music where the compositions themselves become secondary to the mood they evoke. And while Bowie hits celestial pay dirt on one of the pieces -- "Weeping Wall" -- he more often calls attention to his own dabbling. Such technosheen music requires a detached master to hold the reins, and Bowie, the cracked actor, is just too much of a ham. The problem is most glaring when his Latin-mass voices are blended into the lunar mix with the subtlety of ripe blue cheese.

Bowie lacks the self-assured humor to pull off his avant-garde aspirations. His role playing long ago blew his detached mystique. Low serves as a moderately interesting conduit through which a wider audience will be exposed to Bowie's latest heroes, and in this sense is an interesting addition to his recorded catalog. More importantly, Low fulfills another of Bowie's requirements -- it again washes clean his audience's expectations and allows him to contemplate his next mask.

- John Milward, Rolling Stone, 4/21/77.

Bonus Reviews!

Bowie the multi-instrument master emerges on this disk. The emphasis is on eerie, unusual arrangements for well defined, laid-out instrumental journeys into some brooding, mysterious lands. Bowie's singing is significantly down-played here in favor of the overdubbed instruments including synthesizers and other keyboards. Side two is the most adventurous and a stark contrast to the few distorted hard rock cuts on side one. This LP emphasizes Bowie's serious writing efforts which only time can tell will appeal to the people who have watched him go through various musical phases. Best cuts: "Warszawa," "Weeping Wall," "Sound And Vision."

- Billboard, 1977.

I find side one's seven "fragments" -- since the two that clock in at less than 2:45 are 1:42 and 2:20, the term must refer to structure rather than length -- almost as powerful as the "overlong" tracks on Station to Station. "Such a wonderful person/But you got problems" is definitely a love lyric for our time. But most of the movie music on side two is so far from hypnotic that I figure Bowie, rather than Eno, must deserve credit for it. I mean, is Eno really completely fascinated by banality? B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The first of several efforts with ex-Roxy Music sound painter Brian Eno, Low is a willful departure from Bowie's pop persona. Short songs make their point and get out of the way on the first half, followed by four dense synth-instrumental soundscapes. * * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

"I blew my nose one day and half my brains came out." With these gentle words, Davie Bowie said farewell to L.A., where he'd spent much of the mid-Seventies buried up to his clavicle in white powder, and fled back to Europe for some personal detox -- not to mention some of the most amazing music of his amazing career. Low, released in 1977, was a new beginning for Bowie, kicking off what is forever revered as his "Berlin trilogy," despite the fact that Low was mostly recorded just outside Paris. Side One consists of seven fragments, some of them manic synth-pop songs, some just chilly atmospherics. Side Two consists of four brooding electronic instruments. Both sides glisten with ideas: Listening to Low, you hear Kraftwerk and Nue!, maybe some Ramones, loads of Abba and disco. But Low flows together into a lyrical, hallucinatory, miraculously beautiful whole, the music of an overstimulated mind in an exhausted body, as rock's prettiest sex vampire sashays through some serious emotional wreckage.

Brian Eno gets much of the credit for Low -- not only did he play keyboards on six of the eleven tracks and co-write "Warszawa," but you can hear the heavy influence of his own solo records, especially Another Green World. Still, Eno only dreamed about making noise like this, mainly because he never assembled a band anywhere near this great: A big hand, please, for the fuzzed-out guitars of Ricky Gardiner and Carlos Alomar, and the fantastic production of Tony Visconti, who distorted Dennis Davis' snare to create one of rock's all-time most imitated drum sounds. Bowie sings haikulike lyrics about emotional death and rebirth, sometimes hilarious ("Breaking Glass"), sometimes brutally honest, as in the electric-blue loneliness of "Sound and Vision" and "Be My Wife" or the doomed erotic obsession of "Always Crashing in the Same Car."

The record company begged Bowie not to release Low, but it became a suprise hit and holds up today as one of his most intense and influential albums, inspiring two excellent Berlin trilogy sequels, Heroes (1977) and the insanely underrated Lodger (1979). It makes sense that Bowie released Low the week after he turned thirty, for the same reasons it sounds so timely today: Low is the sound of the slinky vagabond falling to earth, trying to catch up with the speed of life -- and maybe even find some kind of home there. * * * * *

- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 11/22/01.

Moving to Berlin to kick cocaine, Bowie hooked up with producer Brian Eno. Low was the first of the trilogy of albums they made in Berlin, full of electronic instrumentals and quirky funk vocals such as "Sound and Vision." The same year, Bowie also produced Iggy Pop's Lust for Life and The Idiot, both recorded in Berlin.

Low was chosen as the 249th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

The first of David Bowie's legendary "Berlin trilogy," Low's troubled atmosphere reflected its creator's own fractured mental state at the time. Things reached a head when Thomas Newton, the stranded alien he had played in The Man Who Fell To Earth, met Bowie's own nasty "Thin White Duke" persona and the pop star started spouting nonsense about Nazis. In an effort to reconnect with reality, Bowie shacked up with old pal Iggy Pop in Berlin -- then the drug capital of Europe.

However, much of Low was conceived at the Château d'Herouville studios in France, where Bowie and producer Tony Visconti coaxed Bowie's R&B-schooled sidemen into replicating the Teutonic perfection of Neu!, Cluster, and Kraftwerk. The result was a side of classic experimental pop -- notably the breathtaking "What In The World," single "Sound And Vision," and "A New Career In A New Town."

If fans were bemused by what was a left-turn even by Bowie's standards, heaven knows what they made of the album's second half: four ambient pieces constructed with Brian Eno. A brilliant (mostly) instrumental evocation of Bowie's desolate outlook, these experiments were a bleak keynote for the post-punk era, especially for Joy Division, who were originally known as Warsaw, named afer the chilling "Warszawa." Bowie himself now acknowledges Low as something of a career high point, an opinion shared by fans who lapped up his one-off live re-creation of the album at London's Royal Festival Hall in 2002.

- Mark Bennett, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Bowie escaped L.A. to start over in Berlin with his new partner in crime, Brian Eno. Low was split between oblique rock blurts and synth instrumentals, with Bowie brooding over what a disaster he's made of his life in "Always Crashing in the Same Car." Kicking off the Berlin Trilogy, it remains the most emotionally accurate turning-30 album ever.

- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 8/25/16.

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