Low (2017 Remaster)
The first installment of David Bowie’s famed Berlin Trilogy actually wasn’t birthed in Berlin. After barely surviving the druggy LA hedonism that birthed 1976’s Station to Station, Bowie vowed to get clean and stowed himself away in a chateau studio in northern France, with fellow addict Iggy Pop in tow. The detoxing duo recorded Pop’s 1977 solo debut, The Idiot, which featured a collision of seedy, urbane rock, and cold, mechanistic rhythms—a reflection of Bowie’s growing obsession with the electronic-oriented sounds coming out of Germany at the time. And with his own next record, Bowie immersed himself so deeply in that realm, he practically disappeared into it. Released in 1977, and recorded with producer Tony Visconti and fellow glam survivor Brian Eno, Low closely mirrors the former Roxy Music figurehead’s own transition from eccentric art-rock artist to ambient-music icon. An exemplar of how the vinyl format could influence aesthetic choices, Low is divided into two distinct, oppositional sides: The first is made of up of compact, synth-shocked pop songs; the second is a suite of abstract ambient pieces that merge the worlds of electronic experimentation, opera, and neoclassical composition. It’s easy to see Low’s first half as a logical extension of Station to Station’s icy avant-funk. But the buzzing keyboards, chromatic leads, and industrial-strength beats of songs like “Breaking Glass” and “What in the World” push Bowie far away from the American soul music that initially inspired him to trade in his glitter for grooves. And for all its radical sound design and cryptic lyrical fragments, Low’s Side A offers some of Bowie’s purest expressions of emotion, be it the irrepressible “Sound and Vision” or the sorrowful “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” both of which spin traditional mid-century radio into otherworldly transmissions. If Low’s first act offers a glimpse of a totally wired future, its meditative second half is firmly grounded in the moment of its creation. Inspired by Bowie’s walks through the battle-scarred post-war cityscapes of Warsaw and West Berlin (where the album was eventually completed and mixed), Low’s Side B is a haunted aftershock of the 20th century’s darkest hour: In the isolated moments when Bowie’s vocals do appear—via the indecipherable incantations that complement the foggy drones of “Warszawa,” the Steve Reich-like percolations of “Weeping Wall,” or the closing sax-speckled synthphony “Subterraneans”—he isn’t so much singing to his audience as praying for humanity. Low’s unconventional nature initially prompted RCA Records to delay its release by several months, as the label feared the record would flop commercially. But its influence immediately filtered down to the post-punky synth-pop acts that would dominate the British weeklies into the 1980s, andLow’s legacy would continue to proliferate decades later, when alt-rock auteurs like Trent Reznor, James Murphy, and St. Vincent embraced its forward-thinking fusion of ruptured rhythms, idiosyncratic melody, and dissonant texture. After spending the better part of the 1970s using his body as a blank canvas to develop new personae, Low halted that ceaseless cycle of visual reinvention with an act of self-negation, as Bowie completely surrendered to the impressionistic power of sound. And as he dug his heels deeper into his new Berlin base, the line between vanguard pop star and avant-garde explorer would continue to blur in fascinating and unpredictable ways.