BOWIE WEEK: Low
Samuel Breen takes a look at the clash between pop and the avant-garde which fuelled "Bowie's finest hour", the 1977 album Low...
Low is an enchanting record - a record that keeps on giving. It has that endless rotation that all great records have. A momentum and industrial quality that can only truly be realised as it rotates at 33rpm.
Take the Motor City heartbeat of 'Speed Of Life' for example; a track that feels more like a manifesto than an overture. It's a reverent paean to recorded music, not about thrills or spills, nor characters in a rock 'n roll saga. With its quality counter melodies tucked under the driving, wirey licks, it marks Low as a complex, broody beast - a perfect marriage of disparate ideas.
'Breaking Glass' drops and Bowie's voice finally kicks in, battered by reverb. His cry of "Listen!" is followed by a synth crash so stark, raw and mechanical it subverts the notion that it was once a pioneering sound, rejecting futurism for the gritty factory floor. It's the sound we hear on early Human League records. What was epochal, is now definitive.
It's a dichotomy to think that the brutalism Bowie explored during this period would still retain the capabilities to produce glistening pop. 'Sound And Vision', for all its consistency with the spikiness of the rest of record, remains a single.
It's a stone cold tune, possessing the savvy-ness to enter stratospheres well beyond that of its companions, primarily because it has the air of completion, of a cute, rigid structure. Bowie's genius comes through here not in the sound production, which is meticulous, but rather in the retracting of the song before it consumes the album - before it develops into another behemoth, à la Heroes. The result is a pop song that's set to tease.
'Be My Wife' continues the vaudevillian folklore of the record with opening piano chords which wouldn't be unsuited to a Brechtian music hall foray, later satirised in the narcissism of song title, "A New Career In A New Town".
These folk elements exist against a contrast of brilliant experimentation. 'Warszawa', a eulogy on ambient synthesiser, is drenched in melancholia and occupies a space somewhere between Philip Glass and Ennio Morricone. Also drinking up Stravinsky, Les Six, and Shostakovich, Glass and Reich (who is heavily referenced in the marimba of Weeping Wall), Bowie uses folk intervals as his palette for extended exploration.
This obsession for the weird and unexpected, alongside this marriage of experimental dissonance and classic songsmithery, make Low Bowie's finest hour. It's also an hour spent standing on the shoulders of giants.
*** BOWIE IN BERLIN *** TONY VISCONTI ***
*** MICK RONSON ***