When most people think of David Bowie, they think of the Ziggy Stardust character he created, or him just being a weird guy. Like, a really weird guy. I don't blame them. Ziggy is by far his most popular record, and David Bowie was weird back then (I am actually of this opinion too, but in a more...accepting manner). But when I think of David Bowie, I think of this work of staggering proportions, Low: masterful, and groundbreaking.
That is not really to say that Low necessarily blazed the trail; in fact, Iggy Pop's the Idiot did it first. But, for those familiar with the album, David Bowie had a heavy influence and guiding hand in the musical direction of the record. In fact, outside of a couple of cuts, Bowie wrote the music to the Idiot. Bowie's work on his friend's record allowed him to pursue his goals on Low with greater courage, dexterity, and awareness, therefore making this the far superior selection.
Much of Low's success can be attributed therein to his collaborator on the record, Brian Eno. Eno has always been one of those unique figures in rock and roll. Few know of his existence, but his influence is beyond widespread. Besides his solo records which are avant-garde and experimental, Eno's producing and collaborative work itself reads like a best-of list of all the artists, such as:
Talking Heads - More Songs About Building and Food, Fear of Music, Remain In Light
U2 - The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby
Devo - Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
David Byrne and Brian Eno - My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
among countless others.
For one reason or another, working with Eno seems to elevate the quality of everything he touches...perhaps his challenges to rock conventions challenge the artist to be more, or maybe it is some insane sort of coincidences that align the full blossoming of an artist and their collaborator/producer in Eno towards one goal. Regardless, while Bowie is still Bowie here, we can say that Eno probably pushed the record further into greatness than what could have been expected without him.
Low is also a peculiar beast in its sequencing. Side B is entirely instrumental, while the songs on Side A are actually sandwiched between two instrumentals. Side B is also cold, bleak, and desolate while Side A cultivates a brighter, warmer sound as it gleefully bounces around from thought to thought. In a great sense, the songs present on Side A are not really songs, per sé, but more or less similar to the "art songs" of the classical genre of music. Though instead of painting a story within the span of a shortened song (all less than four minutes long), Bowie instead often improvised lyrics that paint surreal pictures rather than clearly illustrate a story: how else can the bizarre lyrics to "Breaking Glass" be interpreted?
Side A, beginning with "Speed of Life," is filled with these "art songs," whose length per track is actually beneficial to the organization of the work as a whole. While some tracks seem like strange cast-offs given their short length, if fully fleshed out and given length, my impression is that they would also lose their power. The strength of Side A is the way it flits from picture to picture as if time is precious. To move through Side A is to move through a powerful set of songs that pull at the gut and strain the brain as they all come by in quick and dizzying succession. The strangely glittering parts to "Sound and Vision" is a particular delight, with its main recourse, "waiting for the gift of sound and vision," alluding to Bowie's search for both musical and artistic zen (as he was getting back into art once again).
Side B is the other side of the coin, the other half of Low. Whereas Side A plumbed a brighter existence, Side B was the barren half that more closely resembled a futuristic leap into the depths of space (though I would argue that the tracks would fit very well with the plight of the commoner in the USSR, as evidenced by the titling of "Warszawa"). Through four dirge-like and languid instrumentals, Bowie paints a dark image: sometimes funeral-esque, sometimes sounding almost lost; but in a sense, as the saxophone finally drifts off at the end of "Subterraneans," and the outcome is unknown, the end is somehow fitting. Bowie was just escaping the icy clutch of an addiction to cocaine, and his sense of insecurity about the future is somehow reflected on Side B.
Low is a record that stands tall with the best of them. In my personal opinion, this record is an easy shot within a top fifty records of all time list, and I'd be even more inclined to include it on a top twenty(-five) records of all time list. And while initially I scoffed at Pitchfork's placement of this record over London Calling as the best record of the 1970s, after many plays, I can see why they chose Low: it's quite simply a groundbreaking record, whose incorporation of avant-garde and electronic influences was unprecedented, forward-looking and still familiar at the same time.
Apparently, much of the instrumental material that appears on Low was written (at least primitively) by Bowie as the soundtrack for a movie he acted in, the Man Who Fell to Earth. They were rejected by the director, as the rumor is that the director wanted a more folk direction with it. I wonder how that guy feels now, knowing he passed up a masterpiece.