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Music / Low (David Bowie Album)

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"Sometimes, you get so lonely..."

"Two sides of Bowie you've never heard before."
Tagline from the album's advertising campaign.

Low is the eleventh studio album by David Bowie, released in early 1977 through RCA Records. It is the first of his "Berlin Trilogy", a Thematic Series that also comprises its two follow-ups: "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 Europe with personal friend and fellow junkie Iggy Pop to rehabilitate, bouncing from Switzerland to France to West Berlin. 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; he and Bowie had already been communicating on and off since 1973).

Bowie had already incorporated elements of these influences to Station to Station, but began to dive more deeply into them here, first probing their potential while producing Pop's The Idiot before using these elements for his own songs (The Idiot would end up releasing after Low, allegedly because Bowie didn't want to look like he was imitating Pop). However, unlike The Idiot, which took an aggressive industrial approach, Low would be far more minimalist, ethereal, and instrumental-centric, owed in part to the turmoil of the rehabilitation process and the collapse of his first marriage; he would ultimately divorce in 1980.

Setting a template for the following two albums in the Berlin Trilogy, Low distinguishes itself by taking a different approach to its style on each side of the record, influenced by Eno's 1975 albums Another Green World and Discreet Music (especially the former). Side one is a collection of short avant-pop pieces with lyrics that reflected Bowie's state of mind at the time, while side two is themed around longer ambient compositions rooted in the atmosphere of the Cold War. "Heroes" would take a similar approach, while Lodger would divide itself between a side of travel-themed songs and a side of introspective songs.

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.


Side One

  1. "Speed of Life" (2:45)
  2. "Breaking Glass" (1:42)
  3. "What in the World" (2:20)
  4. "Sound and Vision" (3:00)
  5. "Always Crashing in the Same Car" (3:26)
  6. "Be My Wife" (2:55)
  7. "A New Career in a New Town" (2:50)

Side Two

  1. "Warszawa" (6:17)
  2. "Art Decade" (3:43)
  3. "Weeping Wall" (3:25)
  4. "Subterraneans" (5:37)

Bonus Tracks (1991 Reissue):

  1. "Some Are" (3:24)
  2. "All Saints" (3:35)
  3. "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.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The vocals in "Warszawa" consist of mock-Polish gibberish. The melody of that portion of the song was 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.
  • 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."
  • 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 lonely
    Sometimes, you get nowhere
    I've lived all over this world
    I've lived in every place
  • Darker and Edgier: Rather Gloomier and Sadder. 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.
  • Digital Destruction: The original CD releases by RCA Records have their own sets of issues depending on the region. American CDs feature an imbalanced equalization, with the left channel being noticeably brighter than the right. European CDs lack the equalization problem, but add fade-ins to almost every song (the exceptions being "Breaking Glass", "What in the World", "Be My Wife", and "Subterraneans"), despite many of them being written with cold-opens in mind.
  • Distinct Double Album: A single-album variant. The first side is made up of short art rock pieces, while the second is consists of lengthy ambient tracks that are 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, who told Bowie that the device "fucks with the fabric of time" in reference to its then-new pitch-shifting capabilities, received numerous calls from other producers inquiring about the process, only for Visconti to ask them how they thought it worked. Both retrospective analysts and Bowie himself described this hollow drum sound as a precursor to Phil Collins' "gated reverb" technique, which would become ubiquitous throughout the 1980s.
  • Epic Instrumental Opener:
    • The vocals on "Sound and Vision" don't enter until one minute and thirty 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.
  • Fade In: "Speed of Life" opens the album with one, providing an In Medias Res tone to the first few seconds.
  • 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, danceable song about isolation.
  • Miniscule Rocking: "Breaking Glass" is only 1:42 long, giving the Australian-exclusive single release the unusual task of needing to make the track longer to make it commercially viable. Bowie would extend the song to a more conventional length in live performances, as captured in 1978's Stage; that album's version of this song would fittingly see release as a single across Europe that year.
  • 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 mine
    Share my life
    Stay with me
    Be 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.
  • Production Throwback: The music video for "Be My Wife" recalls that for "Life on Mars?" six years prior. Both videos feature Bowie in makeup, performing to the camera while alone in a White Void Room.
  • Pun-Based Title: "Art Decade" plays off of "Art Deco" and "art decayed."
  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • "Always Crashing in the Same Car" was inspired by an incident where Bowie rammed his car into one of a drug dealer who he believed ripped him off before speeding around in a parking garage screaming suicidal epithets.
    • "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.
    • "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.
  • 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).
    • The 1991 Rykodisc reissue includes a remix of "Sound and Vision" by Never Let Me Down co-producer and Queen collaborator David Richards. Among other things, the remix is much longer than the original, features a more dance-oriented sound, and replaces the distorted drums with gated ones, reflecting the album's influence on the '80s music landscape.
  • Record Producer: David Bowie and Tony Visconti.
  • Re-Cut: US and Canadian 8-track releases reshuffle the tracklist to fit the format's four-program sequencing. The running order of these versions go "Speed of Life", "Be My Wife", "Art Decade", "Breaking Glass", "What in the World", "Subterraneans", "Always Crashing in the Same Car", "A New Career in a New Town", "Warszawa", "Sound and Vision", and "Weeping Wall". Additionally, "Warszawa" is split into two parts due to it overlapping with the changeover from program 3 to program 4. The UK 8-track release is less drastic, simply moving "A New Career in a New Town" from track 7 to track 4.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Just like Station to Station the album cover of Low is an edited photo taken on the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth, specifically of Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton standing on the dock by his house. Also like Station to Station, the cover is popularly claimed to be an edited still from the movie; similar shots exist in it, but none directly match the photo used on the album cover.
    • 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. The chant was further inspired by a recording Bowie found of the Polish folk choir Śląsk.
    • "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".
  • 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.