4 out of 5
Produced by: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
My parents weren’t music people, nor was my older brother. During those formative music-exposure years – which for me, would’ve been the last half of the 80s – the most common subjection I got to stuff was through the radio in car trips, which gave me a general acceptance / appreciation of top 40s / oldies stuff, but it was never presented with any particular bravado by my car trip-providers i.e. mom and dad, and thus didn’t register beyond that. This also was obviously before easy digital music exposure, so that was pretty much it – I wasn’t boppin’ to any Kidz compilations, or getting ahead of the curve via handed-me-down vinyl or cassettes. I remember going to some kind of family-related get-together, at which some similarly aged kids asked me what music I liked, and the question irresolutely puzzled me. Like, I just didn’t realize (in that kidly don’t-know-until-you’re-told way) that people formed attachment to music like that.
Anyhow, I did get into music, but it was a kneejerk response to popularity pressures and teens-being-teens, and so it was firstly all that hated MTV stuff like Nirvana, then segueing off into slightly more underground punk, then off to the hallowed halls of being an indie asshole once I started working at a music store. (Which was a Sam Goody, but nonetheless.)
The long-in-coming point being: I totally skipped that age where I was supposed to get into stuff from before my time, like David Bowie. And by the time I was hearing it on the regular – when I shifted over to Tower Records, where the playlist wasn’t corporate mandated and so I got full discographies from all the artists I’d missed rotated in to every set, every day, plus rundowns from dedicated fans as to why I should be including such stuff in my own bulging CD / vinyl collection – by that time, I was already dyed-in-the-wool on my preferences. So I have no nostalgia for this stuff, but I think I’m also past the point where I’d have anti-notalgia for it: I can recognize its influence, and enjoy it, and to my interest, for these reviews, come into it all pretty “cold.”
And that cold take responds to David Bowie’s Low as: it is a deepy weird album, says the guy who spent a good chunk of time willfully listening to static radio stations. (And for what it’s worth: at Tower, I think Low was probably the least played of Bowie’s major releases.)
Even by modern music standards, in 2022, encompassing the spectrum of oddball outcasts of which I’m aware, Low is strange, and especially so for a major label release. While we definitely get artists given the berth to try out some experimental stuff, the way Bowie has splashed together an A-side of dodgy pop with a B-side of straight-up ambience is bold, not to mention most of that pop being… quite un-single like, hardly making it to the repeat of a single verse before fading out. The worldly sounds of Warszawa, for example, are totally the kind of introspective nonsense some “serious” artist would toss into the middle of an album of guitar pop, fair enough, but to back that up with deep-dives into, like, Maurice Jarre-esque soundscapes and other instrumentals is just unheard of, even amongst indie works.
This is preceded by the Eno-inspired mash-up of electronics with Bowie’s glam, which, frankly, isn’t always of the smoothest effect, but definitely adds to an off-kilter vibe, right from the outset of instrumental opener Speed of Life, which well represents the album’s mixed bag of emotions, backing up an upbeat guitar line with a kind of disconcerting, paralleling riff on keys. Followup Breaking Glass is then all fury, and clocks in at less than two minutes; for anyone expecting a hook to be the logical next step after an instrumental intro, prepare for a dearth of that: Glass’ doesn’t have a chorus, or any aspect that seems to repeat, and is incredibly unsettling, in the best of ways.
Then, sure, why not a sort of goofy funk song, like What In the World. Such is the oddity of this disc, which backs geniusly composed and painfully introspective tracks like Sound and Vision and Always Crashing in the Same Car with something pretty silly, like Be My Wife, a pop song. (Yes, you can read its shallow ask as a kneejerk response to the loneliness expressed in prior songs, but it also functions as well as any other surface-level love tune.) Closing out the aside is a sign that the forthcoming juxtaposition of the B-side is very purposeful: A New Career in a New Town is another instrumental, reflecting the opening but replacing its mercurial electronics with Americana harmonica; nice and comforting.
…And then into the completely atypical (for Bowie; for this album thus far) extended instrumentals thereafter. Truly bizarre.
As mentioned, I’m not sure if all of the experimentation works, whether it’s the intra-song blend of electro stuff or the transition between its two sides – though closer Subterraneans is haunting, and prefigures indie bands doing this kind of ambient work 20+ years beforehand (just as the flavor of this particular album would directly influence bands to come) I do think we could’ve used something “structured” to ultimately balance the album out, and seal in its effects a bit more. At the same time, I can’t help but admire what was done here, and its unpredictable nature almost demands that it be listened to multiple times to get a feel for it, which helps to peel back its layers and ingrain it into our appreciations even mroeso.