20,000 Albums for Eidelyn Gonzales: Low

By Venus Rittenberg, Editorial Director

[RCA; 1977]

Key tracks: “Sound and Vision,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” “A New Career in a New Town”

What is there to say about Low that hasn’t been said before? It is the death and rebirth of one of the greatest artists of all time. The story of Low is at least as legendary as the album itself, and the album takes on new meaning once this story is understood. A song title like “A New Career in a New Town” goes from just being a song title to being one of David Bowie’s most powerful statements upon understanding the context (that song is also noteworthy for being repurposed for “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, the closer on Blackstar, Bowie’s final album).

Read more: 20,000 Albums for Eidelyn Gonzales: The Air Force

So what is the story? In 1975 and 1976, Bowie released two albums of soul music after years of making glam rock. These albums were in part fueled by a cocaine habit that became so intense that Bowie maintained that he did not remember recording the 1976 release, Station to Station, which also stands as one of his greatest releases. He also humiliated himself on the tour for Station, allegedly due to the cocaine use, leading to wanting to keep a “low” profile, thus the album’s title. In an attempt to get clean, Bowie moved to Europe with friend Iggy Pop of foundational proto-punk band The Stooges. In France, the two created Pop’s debut solo album, The Idiot. The Idiot is significant in its own right, serving to help invent post-punk music, a favorite genre of mine. It features “China Girl,” written by Bowie and Pop, but performed with Pop on vocals, a song that Bowie would later cover on his best-selling album Let’s Dance in 1983. Following The Idiot’s recording, Bowie began working on his own album with musician Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti. The three would collaborate on Bowie’s next three albums, which were made in Berlin, and dubbed “The Berlin Trilogy.” Low is the first and greatest of these.

The album opens with the first of many instrumentals. “Speed of Life” immediately sets the tone of the first side of the album (and the distinction between the sides is very key for this album, as side B is all ambient songs). The instrumental is bold, and hits you with a striking intensity. It is unlike anything Bowie had made up to this point. It tells you that Low is something different. Something new. The song is also key to “The Berlin Trilogy”, as it receives a callback on the next album apart of it,  “Heroes.” The closing song of that album, “The Secret Life of Arabia,” features the line “I was running at the speed of life,” tying these two albums together even further. The next song is the first song with vocals, “Breaking Glass.” Bowie’s vocals are harsh, and the lyrics are obscure. The song is dark and introspective, with sparse vocals. Once again, it is something new and fresh, but undoubtedly bitter. Low carries with it a unique emotional feel. These two songs introduce this atmosphere. The songs are lonely and aggressive. It is clear that Bowie is recovering, or trying to recover, from something extremely difficult.

Track 4, “Sound and Vision”, was perhaps Low’s only mainstream hit at the time. It is the only song from the album to appear on greatest hits compilations. This is definitely deserved, as calling it anything other than the album’s best track is ridiculous. The song is more typical for Bowie, featuring a bright, funky instrumental and crooning vocals. Lyrically, however, the song is more in style with the other songs on Low. It details Bowie’s retreat out of the public eye and into his private life, creating the aforementioned, titular low profile that he took during the crafting of this album and The Idiot. The lyrics of this song are among Bowie’s most beautiful. He is expressing gratitude for the simple things in life, such as the mere gift of “sound and vision.” It is a song that asks us to slow down and admire the good things in life, especially in a darker moment. It is inspirational.

The next song is also gorgeous. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” details the frustration with making the same mistake over and over again, probably referring to Bowie’s inability to get off coke while in America. The final song with an emphasis on vocals is another favorite of mine, “Be My Wife.” This song has its roots in the past couple Bowie albums’ focus on soul. The song was also the second Bowie song at the time to receive a music video. The video was rather similar to the last one, for “Life on Mars?” Both videos feature Bowie in makeup on a white background. The “Be My Wife” video features more conservative makeup, however, and also has him playing the guitar. The song itself sees Bowie at the peak of the breakdown that is the first side of Low. The song is loud and explosive, and Bowie is practically yelling “sometimes you get so lonely.” It’s as if his world is crumbling around him and all he can do is beg. What is he begging for? “Please be mine / Share my life / Stay with me / Be my wife,” as the chorus goes. The song is rooted in Bowie’s at-the-time collapsing marriage. It sounds like the glass from “Breaking Glass” has finally shattered.

Side A concludes with another instrumental, and it is one of Bowie’s most profound tracks. “A New Career in a New Town” doesn’t need to have vocals, the title combined with the music perfectly portrays what Bowie is attempting to say without him even having to say it. If the rest of side A is the death of the artist, this instrumental represents the rebirth. Bowie has given up his old ways of living, both his career and town, for a new life, a better life. This instrumental is melancholy, but remains hopeful. The synths and piano are sparkly, and the harmonica is delectable. As previously mentioned, this song would later be edited and have vocals placed over it for the closing song on Bowie’s final album, which was about his own death. This adds even further context to this song (context that admittedly did not exist until 2016, nearly forty years after this song was released), that makes it even more intense.

Side B features four ambient tracks. Eno helped to invent the genre, so it makes sense that an album so heavily tinged by his presence would include these songs. With that said, the songs were not entirely crafted by him, Bowie and Visconti worked on them as well. The songs paint a picture of Bowie’s perspective of Europe at the time. They are a breath of air after the pain of side A; however, they are not cheery. The songs are downcast and saddened, and the atmosphere is heavy. The closing song on the album, “Subterraneans,” was based on a composition Bowie made for a movie he starred in, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Bowie had originally submitted an entire score for the album, but it was declined. The sound of the score he made helped to inspire Low and “Heroes. A still from the film is featured on Low’s cover (another one was used for Station). Ending the album on this song is fitting, as it captures Bowie’s journey over the creation of Low. “Subterraneans” existed in some form during Bowie’s heavy coke addiction, and evolved into something new, just as the artist himself did.

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