Sooooo sorry for this post being delayed for months, there’s been a lot of unplanned chaos in my life and this has been on the backburner! Truthfully, at the time of writing, I’ve not only been done with the Bowie project for weeks but have nearly wrapped up the next band’s Chronicles, too. So…expect a flurry of posts in the coming days. I’ve not had the time or motivation to actually upload what I’ve written and deal with the boring metadata administrative stuff to get these posts live. Anyways where were we? Oh yeah, BERLIN. We’re about to enter the critical peak of Bowie’s career!
Like Station to Station, this was not a first-time listen but a long-overdue revisit. I’ve been a fan of the instrumental opener “Speed Of Life” for quite a long time now. But what was incredibly interesting to me was listening to this (nearly) back-to-back with Station (that’s the point of this exercise!). Separated by only a year, they’re total complements to each other. Both albums venture out of stadium glam rock and into avant-garde territory, but where Station was focused on drawn-out, maximalist nonsensical pop-rock, Low finds its comfort in repetitive bursts of reflective art rock. It all is a reaction, of course, to Bowie’s move to Berlin. Bowie finds the state of Berlin and the state of his own mind in disrepair, and all of the fun of his previous albums is drained out here.
That’s not a negative. This a gorgeous record, and one that absolutely whiplashed people on it’s release. Bowie – first and foremost a singer – rarely actually lends his vocals on the record. The back half is all instrumental, as is the opener. The intent of this album was pessimistic – Bowie was in a bad place physically and mentally, and that’s displayed through distorted and sadder music, often with a repetitive and minimalist tone. But, it had the opposite effect on me. I find Low very peaceful, even in its melancholy. One of the standouts is the longest track “Warszawa,” which sees Bowie enter ambient for the first time. It’s the quietest track on the record (or any Bowie record so far) and feels like the lowest point for David, but a very calming and peaceful track for me. The back half – derided on first release – follows this trend for me, though none of the subsequent three songs hit the same level as “Warszawa.”
As with many other Bowie albums, the lone hit – “Sound and Vision” – feels like an outlier, because it’s the closest thing to a standard rock song. Even then, though, it’s quirky and repetitive and does not feature Bowie’s voice until a little ways in. It’s also nice to hear Mary Hopkin – who against all odds released a good album in 2022 – on backup vocals.
This one is a masterpiece. You’ll find out in a minute that I messed the listening order up, but the issue I had with “Heroes” is not present here – the tone of this record works throughout, on every track. It’s one of the most consistent Bowie records and one that really defies a true explanation. The record was disregarded as being like a soundtrack, but I don’t see why that’s a negative. It feels like the score to a film that can never exist. It’s not the most interesting record at all times, but it’s Bowie reflecting himself and his fractured state, no longer hiding behind plastic characters. You can feel, good and bad, Bowie’s true intentions and how ‘out of the game’ he was feeling here. This is one of the best I’ve done so far, and I love it far more in this sequential context.
Favorite non-hit track: “Warszawa”
Thanks to my pre-coffee morning brain and Spotify’s ambivalence to detail, I listened to this one before Low, which came out the same year but is alphabetically after “Heroes”. I’ve been saying for a long time that I think the title track is not only Bowie’s best song, but one of the best songs ever. It really does hold up this album and elevate it to seminal status, even with no other hits. Consider me surprised, then, to learn that much of this album was improvised in the studio. It shows, for better or worse, and the immaculately-crafted title track ends up sticking out like a sore thumb. The album’s first two tracks are weary rock tunes that seem to weirdly hearken back to the novelty days, and it’s apparent that there was no plan for them. I’ll be honest – they’re not good. But the rest of Side A after “Heroes” has some great rock tunes with impressive Bowie vocals. “Sons of the Silent Age” is a solid rock tune, and “Blackout” is one of the best Bowie tracks yet. One of his loudest tunes and some of his strongest vocals.
I’m not sure how to really write about Side B here; it’s clear that Brian Eno commandeered this record almost to a fault. Eno is a legend, and the three instrumental ambient tracks here are damn-near perfect, but they don’t fit. They’re pleasant listens, in the way that Music For Airports is. But they’re a huge departure for Bowie (pun intended, let me have it). I enjoyed the music, but I guess I just didn’t really “get” why this was featured unless it was really Eno doing a hostile takeover. All in all though, it does give the listener a calm break before the closer “The Secret Life of Arabia.” I think “Arabia” would probably be a great song on it’s own, but with this ambient section acting as a ~13 minute intro to it, it comes off very powerfully. It’s another great vocal turn from Bowie, and solidifies this as his best vocal album so far.
This record is a lot more confounding than I expected – I thought it was Bowie’s return to ballads. Far from it! I really enjoyed the listen, even though half the record didn’t make sense to me. It’s definitely a top-tier Bowie album, though I think it does a little more for most listeners than me.
Favorite non-hit track: “Blackout”
Okay, I’m returning to this from a long break – well-timed for the mind, poorly timed for the post, as I split the Berlin trilogy up with a week and a half or so in between. Anyways, I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s a solid pop-rock album. I was nervous diving in since the album produced no real hits and simply isn’t celebrated very highly, but it was during his creative peak too. Like the other trilogy entries, the album is split into two ideological halves, but not quite in the same way. This album is more sonically cohesive than the vocal/instrumental complements of Low and the rock/ambient halves of “Heroes.” It’s just two lyrical halves – the first is about world travel and the second is more tongue-in-cheek critiques of Western pop culture. So, let’s split this review in two.
I wanted to like the first half more than I did. There’s some excellent ideas, namely taking inspirations from world music and pairing them directly with lyrics about travel. It’s inherently cultured and some of the most intelligent songwriting of Bowie’s career so far. It’s also just not super fun to listen to? The opener “Fantastic Voyage” is dull, and while “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” are livelier, they don’t feel like the complete, sophisticated songs they should be. I hear the world influences, but the actual origins of the influences don’t feel as clear as, say, Graceland. That said, the final track of side A, “Red Sails,” is maybe my favorite on the album.
Side B is a lot more fun and definitely a more comfortable territory for Bowie. “D.J.” and “Boys Keep Swinging” are loosely satirical and fun pop-rock songs, while “Repetition” explores a slightly softer but very catchy side. “Swinging” is probably the highlight, but all five of these songs are vibrant and fun. There’s no unexplored territory here, and all five of them are ultimately kind of forgettable, but they’re worthy of a listen, too.
This album is fine. I’m not sure it was worthy of the mixed criticism on it’s release, or the pure reappraisal either. It was recorded on tour and it feels like it, even if it had lofty ambitions. It ultimately feels a little rushed, a little empty and a little plain, while still maintaining a purely fun energy. It doesn’t feel like the album Bowie wanted – both him and Visconti have said as much – and it’s a weak way to close out the Berlin era. And still, I might come back to it. It’s pleasant and digestible, with enough familiarity to be Bowie but enough exploration to not be a slog.
Favorite track: “Red Sails”
SCARY MONSTERS (AND SUPER CREEPS) (1980)
I felt like I didn’t know much about this album going in and, knowing the downfall that’s coming in just a few years, I was worried. The backstory to this one is pretty interesting, where Bowie felt that his Berlin trilogy wasn’t selling well and that a lot of artists who were directly influenced by 70’s Bowie – namely another guy I love, Gary Numan – were now overpowering him. So this is a back-to-basics pop Bowie. It doesn’t all work unfortunately, but what does work is quite good.
Bowie rings in a new decade with one of most surprising songs, “It’s No Game (Part 1),” which features a female singer in the place of Bowie. The first side of this album is all very unique and often pounding music. Bowie’s pop to this point has often been kind of plastic, but side A of this album feels urgent and adventurous in a way that’s new. The second track, “Up The Hill Backwards” is a surprisingly beating track that feels a little more in place with the hyperpop and alt-pop stuff of today rather than anything from 1980. The third and fourth songs are, of course, the title track and “Ashes To Ashes.” Both are great and the latter will always be a top-5 Bowie song.
Side B is frustratingly bland. It isn’t bad, and it isn’t the artificial pop of past Bowie – it’s a step up from that. There is absolutely ambition here and not quick songs assembled on tour. But, some of them just don’t amount to much. “Fashion” feels kind of lame and “Teenage Wildlife” goes on longer than necessary. The remaining songs certainly aren’t bad, but just don’t leave a real impression on the listener. Still, it’s a solid album, and another important reboot in the career of Bowie. It really is fascinating to me that he’s had so many hold-ups, restarts and critical or commercial failures up to this point. We generally think of the era from Ziggy to Let’s Dance as a run of near-perfection, but it certainly wasn’t viewed that way at the time. This album though finally managed to mix critical and commercial success. I’ve said little about Side B, but I really do recommend this one.
Favorite non-hit track: “Up The Hill Backwards”
Thank you to anyone who sought out, or stumbled on this and read it! If you did, feel free to go in order with Part 1 and Part 2 of the series. Part 3 sees the commercial peak and critical nadir of his career, as well as the Tin Machine years. It’s a trip. See you on the other side!