For his eleventh studio album, David Bowie retreated to Europe to escape his opulent L.A. lifestyle where he suffered from a severe cocaine addiction. Following a string of albums where he went through several alter-egos and personas, Low is not a powerful literary statement; it’s a compelling and potent collection of mostly ambient instrumental compositions.
The first of his “Berlin trilogy”, Low is a career high for an artist who was always reinventing conventions, pushing boundaries and operating at the frontier of cutting edge music. Tonally, Low is desolate and cavernous, yet permeates with intricate detail. ‘Speed of Life’ kicks off the record with a barrage of multi-layered instrumentation. Glistening background synths and melodic guitar hooks intertwine through multiple key changes.
‘Breaking Glass’ features an off-rhythmic guitar hook and synthesised robotic drum beat, coupled with short stints of sharp erratic bass. Only two tracks in and we are already subject to a tasty palette of the varied compositions the record has to offer.
Side one comprises of short, avant-pop pieces where Bowie’s vocals are subdued and sparse, in fact, are secondary to the accompanying instrumentation. ‘Sound and Vision’ carries a refreshing, funky aesthetic with confident bass lines and slide guitar chords, with Bowie’s occasional vocal stints.
Side one closes with ‘A New Career in a New Town’, a mix of electronic and traditional instrumentation. Its upbeat tone is channeled through shimmering keyboards, high-pitched harmonica and exploratory bass. As with its title, it communicates a certain optimism about moving to a new place and starting afresh.
Side two is mostly instrumental, channeling a sublime, fragile ambiance. It begins with the courageous ‘Warszawa’, co-written with Bowie’s inspiration Brian Eno. A dramatic but subtle piece, it’s comparable to a film score with its graceful synth and string melodies. As the piece progresses, imagery is generated of a broken and abandoned futuristic cityscape.
This majestically transpires into ‘Art Decade’, an equally superb composition. Interchanging volume levels of the synth arrangements create a delicate ebb and flow that is imperative to the power of the track.
‘Subterraneans’ aptly brings the album to a close. Slow build-ups of ambient synth make for a truly thought-provoking piece, with intermittent jazz saxophones managing to communicate and generate imagery that words simply cannot.
Thus, reinstating what Low stands for; an expertly crafted ensemble of musical compositions that are able to communicate the time period Bowie was in, just through the musical composition with its volume, pitch and melody.
Essential tracks: Breaking Glass // Sound & Vision // Warszawa // Art Decade