Bowie was by the mid-1970's a very successful touring and recording artist having broken in the glam rock era and become to many Britain's most watched and successful solo artist. He moved to the US around 1974 and then spent alot of time in New York, Philadelphia and LA recording and doing alot of drugs. By his own admission he was surviving on powdered milk, bell peppers and cocaine for a diet, Bowie was noticeably more gaunt than ever, paranoid out of his mind from coke use and desperately feeling like his life was losing stability both personally and professionally. His marriage was dissolving as well during this time he recorded and toured the 1975 Young Americans and 1976's Station to Station (another personal favorite). With friend Iggy Pop suffering from horrible heroin and cocaine addictions as well the two artists decided they needed a change of scene to clean up their drug habits and focus on musical and artistic endeavors. They moved to Europe moving around France, Switzerland and West Germany and even touring the eastern bloc, Poland, East Germany and the USSR before settling down in West Berlin. Bowie supposedly over the course of this time weaned himself off coke where as Iggy would be less successful though he eventually would kick his habit in the early to mid 80's. However the two supposedly took to drinking copious amounts of alcohol in Germany as you do in such a place. Bowie was taking up acting and painting again. He appeared in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth and much of the music for Low was supposed to have been on the soundtrack for the film instead. But circumstance was that this would not happen and instead Bowie crafted the music into his next album. Bowie's other big change was to include ex Roxy Music synthesizer maestro Brian Eno on his projects as a collaborative partner. Eno, Bowie and producer Tony Visconti would craft Bowie's next three albums through much experimentation.
Bowie began work on Low in late 1976 and released it in early 1977 and to many people who first heard they were shocked by such a transition. The glam rock fans disregarded his mid 70's funk/soul phase and his new found funk/soul fans were in turn shocked by the electronic, ambient and experimental sound on Low. Though Bowie had always been hinting at change with certain songs on previous records. Look to Station to Station's title track and TVC15 and you can start to hear elements of what turns into Low. Much of Low was used conventional rock instrumentation and combining it with at the time contemporary synthesizers and keyboards. Added with Eno's known improvisational writing/recording techniques Low was shaped out this. The combination of Bowie's own curiosity and drive with Eno's manipulations and advice.
Speed of Life is an instrumental that opens the album, its driving drum sound courtesy of Dennis Davis is juxtaposed with the heavy harmonizer sound and many synths and very kinetic tempo gives the impression of one transitioning or moving on from the horrors of the past, a recurring sonic and musical theme throughout the record.
Breaking Glass is co-written by Bowie with drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray, who give this off kilter song a funky disco touch with many little synths kind of appearing in the background. The lyric is short and fractured but it does keep things straightforward about as straightforward as Low gets.
What in the World jumps out after with a almost Pac Manesque bleeping synth and bouncy rhythm. The song is a bit more lighthearted musically than some of the rest of the album and brilliantly displays the juxtaposition of synths with funky rhythms. Much of the music was influenced by the then emerging krautrock scene from Germany with bands such as Krafterk and Neu having a major influence on the record something more acutely noticeable on the next record Heroes.
Sound and Vision is more upbeat with more of the funky off kilter rhythms on display. The lyrics are vibrant and minimalist and Bowie sings with more emotion than any song yet on the record. This is one of Bowie's better known songs from this period. A good one at that.
Always Crashing in the Same Car is a song about one's self destructive tendencies recurring. Half of the song is awash in spacy sounded synth with conventional driving rhythms.
Be My Wife is a more straight ahead rock song with old style piano, but with typical of Low off kilter timing and some distorted lead guitar. Synths play in the background but are pretty minimal. The song is a reflection and plea for Bowie's wife to join him Europe again and start life anew. Though this was not to be as they would divorce in 1980. Making this a more poignant and reflective moment on the record.
A New Career in a New Town, the title should say it all. It's another instrumental that is mostly synth with exception to the drumming and Bowie's harmonica playing which creates an emotional tone to the song. It has a very upbeat and calming synth sound. The song reflects Bowie's overall change of scene and his hope a of maintaining a low profile hence the album title.
Side two opens perhaps the most moving and ominous track on the record Warszawa which is again mostly instrumental and ambient. It was said to have been inspired by Bowie's trip to Warsaw some time before and seemed to reflect the melancholy he felt the city was gripped in under communist rule. Eno's influence is relatively background in most of the record thus far but from Warszawa onward it is most apparent. The song as I mentioned is mostly instrumental aside from the second half where Bowie composed a chorus of vaguely Polish gibberish vocals to break the monotony of the synths and add atmosphere to the song. Very moving and in many ways this song is the microcosm of the album as a whole.
Art Decade follows in a similar vein to the preceding track and is meant to be a sonic tribute to West Berlin. Melancholic and wholly synthesized.
Weeping Wall is played solely by Bowie and features a playful but eerie almost buzzing sound throughout. It follows in the same synth vein as the rest of side two.
Subterraneans is the final song on the album, synthetic, depressing and impressionistic like much of the record. The song features very minimal synths playing everything aside from the saxophones and in many ways this song sounds fairly contemporary, you can easily pick up sounds on hear on most recent Radiohead albums but particularly on Kid A or Amnesiac. Bowie's vocals again are minimal and more for atmosphere than anything else.
This album can be traced as an influence among many subsequent acts. Post Punk bands like Joy Division/New Order almost the whole of synth use in new wave and the industrial of NIN or the contemporary experimental rock of Radiohead of Sigur Ros owes something to this album and this period of work from David Bowie. I highly recommend this record it had some more immediate songs but since half of it instrumental and slow moving that might take some multiple listens for a casual listener to get into. Not for the most lightweight pop fan for sure. This is music for mood and reflection.