Relentless experimentation and the subzero breath of spacious lyrics proved to be more than most people were ready for in the late 70’s. The late David Bowie is definitely one of music’s greatest evolutionists, having created over 26 albums worth of content during his time as a practicing musician. He was no stranger to experimentation and was the last person to be afraid of it or how its final yield would be received by mass audiences. His 1977 album Low is the perfect testament to this fact. It was created at a time in Bowie’s life where he was trying to kick his addictive habit of that powdery-white nose candy so prevalent at the time; cocaine. His movement from L.A. to Berlin was perhaps his biggest ally in accomplishing this feat.
The move triggered the dawn of a new creative process within Bowie, who was clearly battling a ton of emotional stressors. The result was a two-sided project that encompassed 11-tracks of music that would go on to change the process of musical production forever. The stark and distorted guitar on album opener, ‘Speed Of Life’ doesn’t even begin to prepare listeners for what is to come. The fantastic effect put on the drums throughout much of the album, noticed on ‘Breaking Glass’ has itself become a staple in modern popular music.
His approach to this album was to keep vocals brief and distant on most tracks, letting the sonics of the instruments have their room to stretch and be absorbed. What lyrics there are, create a sense of longing and forge a path for new discoveries to be made. Each sentence seems to be a fracture of a larger idea and therefore showcase Bowie’s new sense of intrigue and adventurousness. He seems to feel isolated within his newly sober self and is able to take in the little things in life with much more vigor on ‘Sound and Vision’.
“And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision,
Drifting into my solitude
Over my head.”
He ventures from funky croons on tracks like that to the interestingly soulful and catchy delivery of ‘Be My Wife’. Here his message is more organized and yet the piano and energetic guitar chords make his marital grab for another chance seem frantic and uncertain. Sounds continue to overlap and create entire shifts in mood throughout the album, especially noticeable in the second side of the project (tracks 8-11). Being that they are almost entirely void of lyrics, the instrumentals bear a ton of weight, and they manage to hold this weight with unwavering finesse. Even without words they speak to the listeners the same way a movie’s soundtrack can say more than the dialogue ever does.
It is experimentation at its most adventurous and refined. Low is the perfect example of a project that was released years before people could even begin to predict or understand the massive ripple effect it would have on forthcoming generations. I doubt even Bowie or Brian Eno, the producer behind the beautifully ambient soundscapes, had any idea the inspirational shift in music they would be causing years down the road. Simply put, the music on Low didn’t just break the ground, it shattered it into thousands of pieces that became the grains of sand nearly every subsequent musician has walked over.