The Bowie Chronicles, Part 3

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!

LOW (1977)

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.

Grade: 8.5/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Warszawa”

“HEROES” (1977)

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.

Grade: 8/10

Favorite non-hit track: “Blackout”

LODGER (1979)

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.

Rating: 6.5/10

Favorite track: “Red Sails”


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.

Grade: 7.5/10

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!

Foo Fighters – “Sonic Highways”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Something From Nothing” “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness”

Ever visit a coffeeshop or restaurant enough that the staff knows your order? You walk in and they’re already making it? That’s what the Foo Fighters are like. Their albums are entirely softball pitches, the musical equivalent of treading water. 2007’s “Long Road to Ruin” sounds just like 1995’s “This is a Call” which sounds just like 2002’s “All My Life.” They gleefully play music that’s expected. And there’s nothing wrong with that, other than new albums being predictable almost to the song. It’s to the point where I never even bothered listening to 2011’s “Wasting Light.” But this album is different – it’s a proto-concept album. Eight tracks, each recorded in a different city, “in the vein” of that city’s music scene. It’s a great concept – but they don’t pull it off all that well. It varies heavily by track. They tried to keep their signature sound, but it’s similar to someone hugging you and letting go just enough so you can breathe again.

The cities they cover are, in order: Chicago, DC, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle, and New York. And each track offers a guest musician from that city, although like the songs themselves, both their involvement and the marquee quality of their names vary wildly. Since “Sonic Highways” is so inconsistent, it’s best just to discuss the album track by track. Ready? This might take a while. Let’s go:

1) “Something From Nothing” – Chicago. It’s fair to say that, with exception maybe to LA, Chicago has the weakest music scene of the cities done. This is the leadoff single, and arguably one of the album’s better songs, though hurt unintentionally by a lack of uniform scene in the city. Contributing baritone-guitarist Rick Nielsen (of Cheap Trick and 5-neck guitar fame) adds a weird and jarring dimension to the song with a murky rhythm that sinks the song’s pitch. The song builds, slowly, to a nice climax too. The band take their time more on this album – five of the eight songs are over five minutes. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but this is a pretty strong Foo Fighters song.

2) “The Feast and the Famine” – DC. There’s no reason why this one shouldn’t work, but it’s a mixed bag. Every Foo Fighter grew up playing in punk bands – most notable being Pat Smear founding Germs. So the band tries to rope in the 80’s DC hardcore scene, even so much as bringing in members of Bad Brains on vocals. But what results isn’t a punk song, just a fast radio rock song, intense, but no more so than, say, “Low” or “I’ll Stick Around.”

3) “Congregation” – Nashville. I’m just going to come out and say that this track is boring. It lost my attention as it drags past five minutes, far too long in this case. It’s also impossible to tell what Nashville’s music scene is from it. The inclusion of Zac Brown should be an indicator, but it’s just an average, dull rock song. There’s no Tennessee in it at all.

4) “What Did I Do? / God as My Witness” – Austin. This, by contrast, is by far the most interesting and enjoyable song. It’s titled twice, and there is a stoppage in the middle – but it’s distinctly one song. It’s one of the Foo’s more inventive tracks, and it doesn’t feel long even though it’s 32 seconds more than the long-feeling “Congregation.” Blues guitar virtuoso Gary Clark, Jr., is brought in, and although his inspiration isn’t felt until the solo-heavy climax, it’s worthwhile. He’s one of the better used guests, and the it’s one of the more city-inspired tracks. It has just the faintest blues and country elements, both musically and lyrically.

5) “Outside” – Los Angeles. This is an energetic track, though pretty average. It’s helped by a great solo from Joe Walsh. There’s very little to say about, other than it gives me an excuse to listen to a Joe Walsh solo without having to suffer through an Eagles song.

6) “In the Clear” – New Orleans. Foo Fighters bring in Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the legendary, decades-running collective, and completely waste them by burying them under their own guitars. Foos could’ve made a cool, jazzy track, but it’s got no Jazz Band and no New Orleans, just another Foo Fighters song with some occasional, distant horns.

7) “Subterranean” – Seattle. This is another city that they really shouldn’t have messed up given, you know, Dave Grohl being in Nirvana and all. But it doesn’t represent Seattle’s music scene very well. It’s a boring, midtempo song, completely devoid of the insanity that blessed Nirvana, early Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. That might be the work of sadsack crybaby guest musician Ben Gibbard, of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service fame. His music is dryer and more medium paced, much like this song. Then again, given that he is entirely indiscernible on the song, it might not be.

8) “I Am a River” – New York. Taken just as a closing song, this one’s pretty strong. It creeps along, building ever so slowly into a proper album finale climax. Put it on a different album, it would work great. I just didn’t get what faction of New York it was representing. New York’s “music scene” is largely punk-based, but there’s indie and, well, Frank Sinatra thrown in too. The only NY band I could come up with that this resembled was Interpol, and while I love Interpol, I don’t know that they’re quite the caliber band that the Foo Fighters are going to play off of. Also, this track has the most disappointing guest in Tony Visconti. No disrespect to Visconti – his work with David Bowie throughout decades is tremendous. It’s just that when you’re combing the biggest city in the country, the one that is the music home of Karen O, Patti Smith, Julian Casablancas, BB King, and the surviving Beastie Boys, Tony Visconti seems like an oddly subtle choice. Visconti, like every guest except Bad Brains and Preservation Hall Jazz Band, contributes guitar.

This is a weird album. Foo Fighters, or at least Grohl, seem deeply wrapped up in this concept of music scenes in cities. We’re not really getting let in on that concept as much as the band thinks. We can’t celebrate the music of Seattle or DC when it’s just another Foo Fighters song that happens to have a guest star you can hardly decipher. So my recommendation, if you’re going to listen to this album – don’t play into the concept. Just listen to it as a straight Foo Fighters album. It still won’t be great – the tracks will go on too long and it won’t quite have the flow that its predecessors do. But it’s probably more enjoyable when you don’t factor in the effort of an extensive and expensive recording process, with city influence. Just don’t think about it. Foo Fighters have never been a challenging band, there’s no reason for them to start now.

-By Andrew McNally

Mavis Staples – “One True Vine”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Jesus Wept,” “One True Vine”

Mavis Staples, 73 years old, proves on her thirteenth studio album that she can still make any song sound gorgeous.

Mavis Staples originated as a member of the Staple Singers, the legendary gospel-soul group. But after the family stopped recording music, Mavis came into her own through her solo work. “One True Vine” finds her reconnecting with the man who produced her previous record, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. The songs on the album are primarily covers, ranging from Nick Lowe, to a surprising cover of a Funkadelic song, and a cover of a song from the alt-rock band Low (that’s only a few weeks old, and was also recorded by Tweedy). Tweedy composed two of the tracks, “Jesus Wept” and “One True Vine,” two of the best songs on the album. Staples’ voice sounds as strong as ever, as she takes sometimes painful and emotional lyrics and turns them into beautiful songs.

Tweedy’s work on the album, as with Staples’ previous work, is intentionally minimalistic. A majority of the tracks are just vocals and acoustic guitar, with an occasional inclusion of drums or other instruments. Tweedy played all of the instruments on the album except drums (which were played by his son), which adds to the low-key feel. The focus of the whole album is on the vocals. “One True Vine” is a short and quiet album, stripped away of any distractions. Staples still has a beautiful and strong voice, and the album is a strong and creative blend of gospel and soul because of it.

-By Andrew McNally