As well as having one of the coolest album covers ever, David Bowie’s 1977 album Low is very much an album of sides. Before CDs, albums came on double sided vinyl/cassette and were often considered as such. I’ll focus on the music rather than the Berlin-inspired backdrop to the making of this album, of which much has already been written.
The first seven tracks are made up short zippy little songs, bookended by 2 instrumentals. Apart from the hit single Sound and Vision, none of the melodies are as strong as his ‘classic’ early seventies tracks yet they worm your way into your brain. Opening track Speed of Life has a strong melody, with soaring keyboards and pounding drums. Some of it can sound a little dated, the ‘video-game’ style noises back up What In The World can be a little annoying but in the main it still holds up.
At its best it sounds pioneering, in the case of Always Crashing In The Same Car, where he lays down the template for Gary Numan’s career and some of U2’s work on Zooropa. Be My Wife on the other hand is the most anthemic track here, with a fine vocal from Bowie as he croons “sometimes you get so lo-nely”.
The other side of this album is something else entirely. Bowie and Brian Eno linked up here to create a kind of ambient, Teutonic chilly classical electronic music, without any conventional singing from Bowie. The first of these, Warsawa, perfectly evokes a kind of wintry, Cold War-era Eastern European landscape with gloomy keyboards and some wordless chanting from Bowie in the middle. Art Decade fairs less well as the melody is somewhat meandering, sounding somewhat like the type of music that TV stations used to play many, many years ago over the test card.
Weeping Wall is less obviously melodic, and sounds like it could be used over a documentary charting the progress of recession-bitten immigrants, while Subterraneans sounds darker still, yet uplifting. Bowie chants some very strange sounding wordless vocals, yet it avoids the ambient music clichés and works. Even the saxophone manages not to ruin it. It’s very much night time music, best heard in darkness.
These instumentals gradually reveal themselves over time as hidden melodies come to the fore on repeated listens, and of course were hugely influential in terms of electronic music. Then again Bowie had been a pioneer for some time, right back to Space Oddity. Low is a timepiece frozen forever in a Berlin Wall era moment.