Low is the eleventh studio album by David Bowie, released in early 1977. It is the first of his "Berlin Trilogy", along with "Heroes" from late 1977 and Lodger from 1979 (despite this, most of the album was actually recorded in France).
Having recently become embroiled in controversy after getting Lost in Character as the Thin White Duke and making a number of pro-fascist statements on live TV, Bowie realized just how deeply his state of mind had been damaged by his cocaine addiction, and retreated to Berlin to rehabilitate. While there, he became interested in Krautrock musicians such as Kraftwerk and Neu! as well as the works of Brian Eno (later a major contributor to the album). Combined with the turmoils of the rehabilitation process, this led to Bowie moving into a more minimalist, instrumental approach.
The resulting album was met with heavy skepticism from executives at RCA Records, who felt that the album was far too experimental and impenetrable to effectively market and pushed Bowie to put out a different album more in the vein of Young Americans; Bowie's manager, who received the majority of profits from Bowie's music, outright attempted to block Low from being released. Eventually, however, Bowie persisted, and the album eventually released without any alterations; in retrospect, this incident is generally considered the start of souring relations between Bowie and RCA that would culminate in him leaving the label just five years later. Despite RCA's skepticism, Low went on to be a considerable commercial success, peaking at No. 2 on the UK Albums chart and No. 11 on the Billboard 200 and going on to be certified gold in both the UK and Canada.
Critically, however, response to the album was much more tepid, with reviewers generally panning the album as banally pretentious. In the decades since, though, the album has been very thoroughly Vindicated by History, being recognized as a major influence on both Post-Punk and Post-Rock and with many regarding it as one of Bowie's greatest albums, if not his absolute greatest. The album was listed at No. 251 in Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (later being bumped up to No. 206 on the 2020 revision), No. 14 on NME's list in the same category, and No. 122 on Acclaimed Music''s list of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time.
Low was supported by three singles: "Sound and Vision", "Be My Wife", and "Breaking Glass" (the latter being exclusive to Australia). "Be My Wife" also featured Bowie's first traditional Music Video since "Life on Mars?" in 1971 (other music videos between them were simply recordings of Bowie in concert), being very similar to its predecessor from a visual and cinematographic standpoint.
- "Speed of Life" (2:45)
- "Breaking Glass" (1:42)
- "What in the World" (2:20)
- "Sound and Vision" (3:00)
- "Always Crashing in the Same Car" (3:26)
- "Be My Wife" (2:55)
- "A New Career in a New Town" (2:50)
- "Warszawa" (6:17)
- "Art Decade" (3:43)
- "Weeping Wall" (3:25)
- "Subterraneans" (5:37)
Bonus Tracks (1991 Reissue):
- "Some Are" (3:24)
- "All Saints" (3:35)
- "Sound and Vision (Remixed Version, 1991)" (4:43)
"Baby, I've been breaking tropes in your room again":
- Accentuate the Negative: Down to the title this is mostly a melancholic album.
- Alliterative Title: "Weeping Wall".
- Ambient: The second side of this album mostly falls into this genre.
- Bilingual Bonus: "Warszawa" (pronounced "var-sha-va"), the Polish name of Warsaw, the capital of Poland.
- Blue is Calm: In "Sound and Vision", "blue, blue, electric blue" is the color of the room Bowie goes to escape his anxiety and work out his Writer's Block.
- Bookends: This album contains some unusual examples. Side A mostly consists of vocal pieces, but is bookended by the instrumental tracks "Speed of Life" and "A New Career in a New Town". Conversely, Side B is mostly instrumental, but "Warszawa" and "Subterraneans", which both contain brief passages with vocals, bookend it. "Speed of Life" also serves as part of an unusual example of bookends between albums: "The Secret Life of Arabia", the last song on Bowie's next album, "Heroes", opens its first verse with the line "I was running at the speed of life."
- Call-Back: The video for "Be My Wife", set in a White Void Room, recalls the video for "Life on Mars".
- The Cameo:
- Iggy Pop contributes a prominent backing vocal to "What in the World".
- The brief female vocal on "Sound and Vision" is by Tony Visconti's then-wife Mary, aka Mary Hopkin of "Those Were the Days" fame.
- Cradle of Loneliness: "Be My Wife":Sometimes, you get so lonelySometimes, you get nowhereI've lived all over this worldI've lived in every place
- Darker and Edgier: While not as eerie and antagonistic in tone as Station to Station, Low is far more dour, both musically and lyrically, with themes of isolation and alienation.
- Distinct Single Album: The first side is made up of art-rock pieces, while the second is almost entirely instrumental.
- Downer Ending: "Subterraneans" is an eerie, subdued album closer intended to invoke the misery felt by those in East Berlin at the time; Bowie's saxophone was meant to reflect the city's memory of what it had been.
- Drugs Are Bad: Low was inspired by Bowie's feelings about his cocaine use and especially trying to kick the habit.
- Echoing Acoustics: The album's A-side makes liberal use of a hollow, echoing drum sound, achieved by processing the snare drum track through an Eventide H910 Harmonizer. Producer Tony Visconti notably received numerous calls from other producers inquiring about the process, only for Visconti to ask them how they thought it worked. Analysts in hindsight describe this hollow drum sound as a precursor to Phil Collins' "gated reverb" technique, which would become ubiquitous throughout the 1980's.
- Epic Instrumental Opener:
- The vocals on "Sound and Vision" don't enter until one minute and forty-five seconds into the song. This may not sound like that long by the standards of this trope, but the song is only three minutes long. This was done at Brian Eno's insistence that they "confound listener expectations".
- "Warszawa" and "Subterraneans" are both instrumental until roughly their 3:45 marks, not that there's much singing in either song.
- Epic Rocking: "Warszawa" is over six minutes, although it doesn't qualify so much as "rocking".
- Face on the Cover: Bowie shown in a profile shot lifted from The Man Who Fell to Earth.
- Gratuitous Foreign Language: Subverted. An unsuspecting listener who doesn't speak Polish might think "Warszawa" has Polish lyrics, but they're nonsense. The melody of that portion of the song, however, is inspired by a recording of the Polish folk song "Helokanie" by the choir Śląsk, and apparently the lyrics also took phonetic inspiration from the recording.
- Gratuitous Panning: Done with Eno's synthesizer sounds in "Breaking Glass".
- Guest Star: Tony Visconti's then-wife Mary Hopkin, who had a fairly popular career as a singer in her own right in the '60s, contributes backing vocals to "Sound and Vision".
- Hikikomori: "What in the World" and "Sound and Vision" are both about people who rarely leave their rooms.
- History Repeats: "Always Crashing in the Same Car", about how people keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
- In Medias Res: "Speed of Life"— and by extension, the album— opens with a fade-in during the middle of a melody, giving the impression of the listener entering the atmosphere that Low creates while the main event is already underway.
- Instrumental: "Speed of Life", "A New Career in a New Town", and most of the second side ("Warszawa" and "Subterraneans" both have lyrics, but they're each very brief).
- Limited Lyrics Song: Several songs either have small amounts of lyrics that are repeated several times or have barely any vocals to begin with ("Warszawa" and "Subterraneans" fall into the latter category).
- Looped Lyrics: "Be My Wife", where the verse and chorus are repeated twice, with no variations.
- Lyrical Dissonance: "Sound and Vision" is an upbeat song about isolation.
- Miniscule Rocking: "Breaking Glass" is only 1:42 long.
- Mythology Gag: The music video for "Be My Wife" consists entirely of one to the "Life on Mars?" music video from six years prior.
- New Sound Album: Bowie's second major 180, Low was a considerable departure compared to anything he had previously put out, being a proto-Post-Rock album with Krautrock and ambient influences, plus traces of funk in the rhythms on side A.
- Non-Appearing Title: The word low is notably absent from the album's lyrics. "Subterraneans" and "Warszawa" also do not appear in their respective songs, nor do the instrumentals' titles. Averted by the songs on side A with vocals, though.
- Obsession Song: "Be My Wife":Please be mineShare my lifeStay with meBe my wife
- One-Word Title: Low, as well as the tracks "Warszawa" and "Subterraneans".
- Post-Rock: An arguable Ur-Example for the genre, to the point where Stylus Magazine speculates that it might've been more readily categorized as post-rock had it come out twenty years later than it did.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: "Warszawa" was based on a visit to Warsaw that Bowie undertook in April of 1976, months before the album started production. "Art Decade" was named for a street Bowie had encountered in West Berlin. "Weeping Wall" about the misery of the Berlin Wall. "Always Crashing in the Same Car" was inspired by an incident where Bowie rammed his car into one of a drug dealer, because he believed this man ripped him off. "Be My Wife" was directed at his then-wife, Mary Angela Barnett, as a plea to rebuild their relationship; unfortunately, they couldn't salvage their relationship and would divorce in 1980.
- Rearrange the Song: Not on this album itself, but Philip Glass famously wrote a symphony based on three songs from this album's recording sessions ("Warszawa", "Subterraneans", and "Some Are", the latter of which only appears as a bonus track on some versions of this album).
- Record Producer: David Bowie and Tony Visconti.
- Sanity Slippage Song: "Breaking Glass" was intended as a song from the viewpoint of someone who lost his mind. As Bowie himself was recovering from a horrifically severe cocaine addiction— which had previously resulted in a psychotic break during the sessions for Station to Station— he acknowledged that he was basically referring to himself.
- Just like Station to Station the album cover of Low is an edited photograph taken during production of The Man Who Fell to Earth, specifically of Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton standing on the dock by his house.
- The chant on "Warszawa" sounds like The Stooges' "We Will Fall". Bowie was a fan of the band and a friend to Iggy Pop, producing The Idiot and Lust for Life. And as noted, Iggy himself appears on the album.
- "Weeping Wall" interpolates the melody of the English folk ballad "Scarborough Fair" (notably covered by Simon & Garfunkel).
- Stealth Pun: If you put together the album title and the cover image, you get "low profile".
- Titled After the Song:
- Unbuilt Trope: To Post-Rock. While the album does heavily emphasize soundscapes and focus on texture and timbre over traditional "verse-chorus" song composition, the way songs are actually composed tend to directly contradict tropes common among post-rock. Among other oddities, the lyrical tracks lean more towards Miniscule Rocking, Uncommon Time and the Boléro Effect don't appear anywhere at all, and the instrumental tracks are more similar to conventional ambient music. Consequently, Low is quite possibly one of the most commercially-accessible post-rock albums ever released.
- White Void Room: The music video for "Be My Wife" is set in one.
- Word Salad Lyrics: Done intentionally with "Subterraneans", due to Bowie having grown weary with "conventional" rock lyricism.