“Low” is widely regarded not only as one of Bowie’s best and most influential albums, but as one of the best and most influential albums from anybody ever. It frequently appears on top albums of all time lists and I have seen at least one (albeit small) book just about “Low”. As the first of the Berlin Trilogy (to which you can add the Iggy Pop/Bowie collaborations, “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life,”) Bowie himself was the first to be influenced by his own album. And I of course like it. But to me, in totality, it is middle-of-the-pack at best as a Bowie album.
Side one is great. Sandwiched between synthesizer-heavy instrumentals that begin and end the side are five excellent songs on which Bowie sings— “Breaking Glass,” “What in the World,” “Sound and Vision,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car” and “Be My Wife.” Bowie hinted at this type of music in his previous album, “Station to Station,” which served as a bridge between his disco period and what would become known as New Wave, but on “Low,” he’s all in. Bowie manages to make compelling music about being lost and listless — “I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.” The best song ever about writer’s block. All the songs are like that. The first words that appear on the album are an irrational confession to vandalizing someone’s room (“Baby, I’ve been breaking glass in your room again; don’t look on the carpet, I’ve drawn something awful on it”). In “Always Crashing,” he’s “going round and round a hotel garage” (the lyric was apparently based on a real incident). Even “Be My Wife” is less a love song than a song about loneliness (driven home by the video, featuring Bowie, by himself, looking as nerdy and unfashionable as he was ever captured on camera). The music and Bowie’s voice are great.
All that said, as I have written elsewhere, had these songs been combined with the songs on which Bowie sings on “Heroes,” he would have put out a great album. Side two of “Low” is all instrumental. At the time, that in itself was revolutionary. Bowie’s use of synthesizers was something new, and I understand that the drumming was pretty innovative. There’s nothing wrong with the instrumentals. I don’t stop the album once they start playing. But after 40 years the novelty has worn off, at least for me. What was innovative became commonplace and eventually anachronistic. In a way they are like early silent movies— we can appreciate them for what they were but not really enjoyed in a contemporary sense. As I have written before, they are missing two of the things I like most about Bowie songs— his voice and lyrics. This is even more so on “Low” than on “Heroes”.
There’s more to the album than the music. The album cover is one of my favorites. It uses imagery from Bowie’s movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (so did the “Station to Station” album cover). And there’s a slightly hidden joke— under the word, “Low,” is Bowie’s profile. So the joke is that the album is, “Low Profile” (I think Bowie, in Berlin, was trying to keep a low profile at the time). Unusual for a Bowie album, it is not named for one of its songs. All this together suggests that Bowie might have deliberately been trying to dial back his celebrity (what the album title has to do with that is, that the album did not serve as a marketing device for a single and vice versa). But “Low” was successful and has since become legendary.
Despite what I think of its shortcomings, I like “Low.” Essentially, about two-fifths of the album is better than the rest. This is actually pretty common for Bowie— there are often three or so standout songs. Some, like “Station to Station” and “Blackstar” are just very short. So that makes it a typical Bowie album (I’m tempted to write, “not a high, and not a …). I’ll take it.