In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the upcoming release date of March 12, 2013
Although David Bowie has gained a reputation for constantly changing and unpredictably exploring new music styles, many of his records tend to hold a little something that points to a new musical direction that will follow. And if Station to Station indicated a new stylistic interest, it was in krautrock and ambient, electronic music.
What resulted from Bowie’s venture into experimental music was 1977’s Low, the first installment in what become known as “the Berlin Trilogy.” While the previous album was surrounded by heavily drug-influenced states of mind, this entry depicts Bowie’s journey to rehabilitate himself. While trying to reach a better frame of mind and recording this music at the same time, the singer effectively moved to Berlin, (as any sensible person would do in that situation, right?) hence giving this series of albums its title.
That being said, this particular album was actually recorded in France for the most part. But why meddle with a good legacy?
Low and the rest of “Berlin Trilogy” are also notable because it encompasses Bowie’s first collaboration with composer, ex-member of Roxy Music, and leading name in ambient music, Brian Eno. And with this addition to the songwriting process, the resulting work is both intriguing and a considerable departure from previous Bowie ventures.
If you have your hands on a vinyl issue of this album, side A and side B will be noticeably split in terms of the material found within each set of songs. The first side is more along the lines of what most people would expect from a Bowie record, and that is well-crafted rock and pop songs (with the exception of the first track, “Speed of Life” and song number seven, “A New Career in a New Town”).
There is certainly a previously-unexplored tone struck within the songs on this collection. Whereas Station to Station’s songs were long, epically-structured progressive tracks, the pop songs on Low are much more abbreviated. Sporadic even. It’s almost as if the songs are not quite finished, giving the album a strange, pure, and deeply confessional feeling. It’s like we’re listening to series of emotional outbursts from the singer, and it’s that concept that makes Low such an unforgettable album.
Having come during a transitional, and presumably difficult, part of Bowie’s life, perhaps it’s easy to see how these songs could be cathartic in a way. The songs explore repeated failure (“Always Crashing in the Same Car”), marital strife (“Be My Wife”), and the emptiness of living in isolation (“Sound and Vision”). “Pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say, and I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision,” Bowie sings in “Sound and Vision. The singer has gone on record in the past saying that this recording came at an especially painful point in his life. It shows.
Side B is really where the instrumental and electronic influences make themselves apparent, starting with the brilliant “Warszawa” and ending with the subversive hymn-like climax in “Subterraneans.” The songs here feature very limited to no actual vocals, and out of context, they’re nearly impossible to describe and do justice to. Like any great piece of instrumental work, it needs to be experienced to be understood.
Low is clearly a record produced through pain. But what resulted is a great piece of work in both an emotional and exploratory level. Like its predecessor, many fans often rank this record among Bowie’s best works ever, and its position as such is undeniable. Bowie fan or not, Low is simply a beautiful work of art, and there isn’t much I could add to that.
My Rating: 5 out of 5
Highlights: This is another one you’ve just got to sit down and listen to from start to finish.
A Very Bowie Moment: “You’re such a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems, I’ll never touch you” – “Breaking Glass”
Best Edition: Rykodisc. You know the drill. Extras include the previously unreleased “Some Are” and “All Saints.”
In many ways, “Heroes” can be viewed as a sequel record to Low before it. Certainly, the record is structured in a similar manner to the previous album. The first half of the record is comprised of more conventional Bowie pop songs, while the second half is mostly built upon experimental voyages into ambient instrumentals. But on the other hand, there is one main difference that sets this record apart. Low was very much leaves the listener with the image of a man in pain; “Heroes” presents us with an ultimate message of hope.
Perhaps another way this 1978 record is unique from the first entry in the “Berlin Trilogy” is that the pop songs have become more structured. The sporadic feel of the songs from Low is still easily found here, but there seems to be more cohesion in the madness of these songs.
The album starts of with the infectious pop of “Beauty and the Beast;” a song that finds its brilliance in its pairing of pop-accessibility and pure mania, a formula that is furthered in the proceeding “Joe the Lion.”
But amongst the madness that characterizes most of the record comes one of the most romantic and certainly recognizable cuts from the album in the infamous title track. With its encompassing crescendo and the imagery of two lovers’ rendezvous at the Berlin Wall under the fire of gunshots, the anthemic immortality of “Heroes” easily stands as the main highlight in these 10 songs.
But the record still continues brilliantly in its wake. With its Middle Eastern-esque flair and the pure pop splendor of its chorus, “Sons of the Silent Age” serves as a very strong cut as does the schizophrenic chaos of “Blackout” which closes side A of the record.
Side B plays in a fashion similar to the second half of Low, but with a few interruptions. Though “V-2 Schneider” starts off the instrumental portion of the record, it doesn’t seem like it fits in very well with some of the songs that follow. The real appeal of the ambient music of “Heroes” is in the three tracks “Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden,” and “Neukoln”
With “Sense of Doubt,” the series of songs begins with a foreboding tonal descent, but when we reach “Moss Garden,” it seems like we have weathered the storm and achieved some kind of tranquility. When we reach the weakening squeals of what sounds like a saxophone at the close of “Neukoln,” the finale is somewhat ambiguous while still providing some resolution. The story has reached its end, but it ends with some clouds lingering in the sky.
It feels as if the album could (and maybe should) end after these three songs, but afterwards we are given another pop song to close out the album in “The Secret Life of Arabia.” While it is an enjoyable song on its own, its place on the record is somewhat disorienting. Surely this sequencing of tracks had some purpose when the album was being made, but it could have benefitted from simply ending on the more fitting finale of “Neukoln.”
“Heroes” is quite similar to Low before it, and in many ways, some of the songs like the title track and “Beauty and the Beast” boast a more prowess in this format and in making these songs pop-accessible. To be sure, it is a classic Bowie album. But while it does stand among the artist’s best work, it may be just a step down from his first, maybe more unadulterated, venture into this genre.
“Heroes” is almost like a sequel album to Low and a damn good sequel at that. But, like in most cases, it can’t beat the original.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Beauty and the Beast,” “Heroes,” “Sons of the Silent Age,” “Blackout,” and the trio of “Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden,” and “Neukoln”
A Very Bowie Moment: “Too, too high a price, to drink rotting wine from your hands” – “Blackout”
Best Edition: The Rykodisc is recommended, but the one extra track “Abdulmajid” (along with the two extras from Low) can also be found on the latter-day compilation, All Saints.