Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Low - 40 Years

We've gone on and on about 1967, rock's most illustrious year; and at times AM has given that edge to 1972 or 1973, but 40 years ago, 1977, was a powerhouse of its own accord. From the debuts by Elvis Costello and Talking Heads, Television's Marquee Moon and Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, to prime year efforts by The Ramones and the apex of their career, Steely Dan's Aja – there's a great argument in favor of '77 as the underdog of the era.

"No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977," growled The Clash’s Joe Strummer in "1977," the B-side of the band's debut single "White Riot." Strummer and crew were trying to make a sweeping statement about the past, present, and future of rock 'n' roll. But on a strictly factual level, they were right: Not only did Elvis Presley die in '77—granted, four months after "1977" came out—neither The Rolling Stones nor the former members of The Beatles (save Ringo Starr) released albums that year. Also absent in '77 were Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen was in the middle of a three-year break. Hell, even The Eagles sat out '77 — except, that is, for a little single called "Hotel California." The charts were filled with pop hits (possibly the last great year of pop radio), while the singer/songwriters emerged (Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne). It was also in 1977 that David Bowie released the first of his three Berlin affairs, Low. In that sense, '77 was a year with one foot in the grave and the other in the future. The result was an embarrassment of musical riches.

When it was originally released, this album confused the hell out of people. It came right after Station to Station with its epic hits and cocaine-induced lyrics. Low, in complete contrast, consists mostly of instrumental tracks (only 4 of 11 songs have lyrics), and instead of rambling on forever, they have a curiously fragmentary feeling to them; with nearly all the tracks in the sub-three-minute mark.

It's also an album that does its best to never really feel like an album, more like a collection of aesthetic snippets. It's consistent only in the overall sound color (which I've grown to associate with the orange of the cover) and that it is consistently inconsistent; fragments of pop songs have been purposefully abridged in their "pop." 

There is a strange appeal in this fragmentary puzzlement, in a way that other LPs of the era never achieve, despite the plethora of increadible recordings. Bowie would go on to create a variation of this concept on Heroes, but there he used much stronger, at times even blinding contrasts and more fully developed song structures compared to the soft-toned Low.

This first album in the series is the defining work of the period, and an incalculably influential record for rock music. The first side is a series of song fragments and jarring song experiments, testing the limits of rock as a form. Bowie's blank, emotionless singing and imagery of psychological turmoil would inspire countless imitators in the post punk era. The second side is a stunning collection of instrumentals. Although the presence of these instrumentals is usually credited to the influence of Eno, in sound, they are as far as possible from Eno's contemporaneous ambient works: whereas the ambient albums experiment with a minimum of musical information, these instrumentals are dramatic, intensely musical and elaborately arranged, especially the stunning, slow closing track "Subterraneans."

Low is a visionary album and a towering achievement for such an artist as Bowie to go off into a different direction from the stylized funk and art rock of Station to Station. Beginning with with the crunchy "Speed of Life" the distorted new wave rock of side one offers a punch like few others. Meanwhile side two glistens with short and compelling instrumental ambient pieces that meld the German electronic inspiration carefully with Bowie's own ahead of its time pop sensibility.