I Live-Blog Bowie’s ‘Low’, Find Out It’s Still A Mystery To Me In The End (It Might Be A Mystery To Everyone?)
It’s been three years since I’ve Live-Blogged here. The last one was Chance The Rapper’s #10Day. CTR has since taken off to new heights we all could’ve probably predicted, probably because he is an extremely talented individual. And he’s just that, an individual. He makes music unlike other artists, within his genre (if he even has one) or otherwise, and that is what’s refreshing. Whether or not you prefer the music he makes, it’s still there. It’s there for someone. And that was supposed to be the point of this blog.
This blog and I have been through a lot together. We’ve been through a music programming job, this blog got me a fine arts masters degree in what i cherish most: nonfiction writing. This blog has been a home to my writing for years, to prove that I could do it. This blog also exists because I refuse to conform. I have a hard time “pitching” to “editors” for whatever reason. I assume it’s because they don’t like my “Internet” “persona” or they can’t handle me, or, simply, they just don’t like my writing. But the joke’s on them, this blog reminds me, because I am who I am. I started this blog because I believed music writing is more than what mainstream media wants it to be. The (Dreaded) Fork is now owned by Conde Nast. The Music Internet has changed dramatically since I started this blog. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to realize that this blog still exists, but it does. And I guess I’m here to remind myself of that with a simple Live-Blog.
A Live-Blog is a concept I invented after I read ?uestlove’s book Mo’ Meta Blues and realized I’ve never listened to Prince. (Prince has since passed away and I have since discovered Sign O’ The Times for the first time. My feelings and opinions about Prince’s OD death could be considered controversial or, I guess, unsavory. Rock stars are drug addicts of many flavors. I just personally cannot handle that he was a martyr, refusing to let any of his traveling band drink or use drugs and all along he was using, privately, yes, but secretly. It rubs me the wrong way. I understand that people have addictions for many reasons, many of which cannot be controlled. But Prince’s ability to keep it a secret, lie about it, and make other people feel bad for using for pleasure or to use for their own addiction, it just rubs me the wrong way. Everything about it puts a bad taste in my mouth and that’s that.) I Live-Blogged Prince’s self-titled record and Purple Rain, which at the time I had never heard before. I’ve also Live-Blogged other famous records I have never heard all the way through before: Stankonia, The Chronic, and of course, Born To Run. If you don’t know what my opinion about Bruce is, I highly recommend you read this. But of course, you can read all the other Live-Blogs here.
Yesterday I published a review I wrote of Rob Sheffield’s On Bowie. And since I wrote that review, nearly a month ago, I had thought about Live-Blogging David Bowie’s Low. Now this is how it works: I’ve never heard this record before. While I listen to it for the first time “Live”, I will “Blog” about it. (See what I did there?) Also since I started using this blog, I’ve changed my habits as a music listener and now I am a complete Spotify fan and user. So, allow me to switch over to Spotify, start Low, and let’s get started.
1. Speed of Life: Hmm what an interesting sound. This is what should’ve sparked my interest in Bowie a lot earlier. But, since I was not raised in a Bowie household, my Bowie education is all on my own terms. I tend to like the more-rocky Bowie. (Granted I heard the song “Modern Love” a majillion times and never knew it was him. So we have some of that on our hands too.) This song is an opening track instrumental, which I like. It’s weird and it sounds like it would be an excellent film filler. It clocks in under three minutes, at 2:47. (Also, note, I am listening to the 1999 Remastered Version.) My understanding of Bowie is that there was a trilogy of albums, Low being the first, followed by Heroes and then Lodger. The last, I know absolutely nothing about. The middle, I know the title track. But let’s stick to Low.
2. Breaking Glass: (Reminder, Sarah: turn off shuffle). Ahh, here is David’s voice. What a chameleon of sound. Every time I hear more Bowie, I hear another thing I’ve never heard before. Sheffield continuously talked about how Bowie is a man of many colors, a constant Horse Of A Different Color, if you will. And damn is he right. This record sounds like a better version of New Indie Rock that’s being released today. It has a good bass line, and some electronic synthesizer sounds going on, sporadically, surprisingly, that I seriously dig. It adds to Bowie’s outer-space vibe.
3. What In The World: What I also never really related to with Bowie, before, was his outsider status and his You Poor Little Lonely Thing-type lyrics. Now, as an adult I know I am definitely an outsider. And I get why he writes, “I’m just a little bit afraid of you/love will make you cry.” Now, that I am in love, and I understand why people can act the way they do, I get it even more. This song has such dark lyrics and is sonically a video game. A constant chatter of keys being hit, somewhere, escalating lyrics, and percussive, everything, really.
4. Sound and Vision: This one is already my favorite on this record. I cannot believe I stayed away from this record long enough after reading Sheffield and was able to keep it fresh to me. I never would pick out a Bowie album to listen to, and when I do, I always go with the Safe One. “Sound and Vision” is definitely a Safe One. It has the “doo-doo-doo-doo’s” and the melodic atmosphere of a radio hit. But then there’s that saxophone. Then there’s a double, spider-webbing, if you will, of his voice at first in a deep timbre, and then in what seems like a Bowie that’s an octave higher. His vocal range is something else. I guess other singers did things like this, but they didn’t do it throughout their career (see Macca’s screetch on “Helter Skelter”). Bowie’s ability to constantly do this, is astounding. “Sound and Vision” is a blip of an example of what Bowie can do vocally, and I dig it.
5. Always Crashing In The Same Car: Even his song titles have something poking at me, wondering, what does that mean? This record, or I guess this song, sounds like something that came out in the 80s. Let’s go to the video tape (read: Wikipedia) to see what’s really up there: recorded in 1976 and released the next year. Every song on this record has it’s own page. (Just more proof that there is always music in the world you haven’t heard before!) This record sounds so ahead of it’s time. I wish I was Live-Blogging this “review” at the time of release. I always say that I wish my super power could be to hear a song again for the first time again, whenever I want. But if I had to amend that, as I am partially doing right now, I would want to travel back in time to hear Low (or anything for that matter) as it was happening, as it was existing for the first time in the world. This record does not sound like something that existed in the 1970s. There are hardly any lyrics on it, and the lyrics are dark enough to be 70s-soaked: everything’s terrible, we’re all broke, the President’s a liar, what do we do now? But the sounds that are happening here are so far beyond what people could’ve imagined sound would be in 1976. But I guess that’s what Bowie was there for.
6. Be My Wife: “Sometimes you get so lonely,” ahh, a song that speaks true to my heart at the moment. There’s a part of Bowie I know I’ll always be discovering, the loner, the spaceman, the lover, the thinnest man alive (according to his Thin White Duke era, where his waste looks like my thigh), and the Bowie I always thought was gay, and I guess everyone always thought, but was married to a woman for decades. “Please be mine/share my life/stay with me/be my wife/sometimes you get so lonely,” what a motto, what a chorus of a song. (Alright, I know he was gay, or “played for both sides”, or whatever, but he was androgynous, and gay–I get it.) People say that the 1970s were a time whenever everyone was realizing that everything was shitty and that we just have to keep pushing forward. A lot of people say now that everything is shitty (see: Donald Trump, ugh I hate to be referencing him but most of us seem to be on the same page with that one) and maybe that’s why 70s music is making a comeback (wait, is it?) because my generation inherited a generation we cannot stand, a generation we had no say in, presidents we had no say in, and what we thought was progress, the oppressor really just changed their name and got more money. “Be My Wife” has a chorus that speaks to me, even though I have a partner now, and understand what it’s like to be lonely when you’re loved. It also had a great guitar lick and good hook that wants me to go back and play it again. But we must move forward.
7. A New Career In A New Town: This one, automatically has an underwater vibe, something that is from a far distant land. I guess when I say that these songs sound like they belong in the 80s, they have that stereotypical sound. But when I think sonically, historically about the 1970s, there was a lot going on there with electronic sound that I never remember to give credit to. And here there’s a muted, or reverb-ed harmonica, which I really like. Then those one-two-three rising key sounds, that make me sound like I’m listening from a great distance. The lack of lyrics on this record impresses me since Bowie is such a poet. But then it doesn’t surprise me when I remember that he was always able to write one good line like “sometimes you get so lonely” and put a soundtrack to it for anyone to relate to. And that’s where the Bowie Love comes from. That he can sum it all up in one simple word. Wow a lot of this record is going by so quickly.
8. Warszawa: This song is the longest on the record, maybe we’ll have time to digest it more. I know that I haven’t been historically going through these tracks, and I’m likely missing a lot of what I’m supposed to be seeing: but that’s not the point of this Live-Blog. The point is for me to hear something for the fist time and write about it. And if you want a historically, sonic review of Low, you’re in the wrong corner of the Internet. This song is building up to something, something I expected much more from Bowie. It’s leading me down a path that I’m not sure I want to go down. There’s a darkness to the tone, and the overall town of the record because of the lack of lyrics. There’s a dissonance to this that makes me think I could pick up the floor, like a Banksy painting, and see what’s under there. Is it just more floor? Is it a different floor? Or is it another world? Are these the questions Bowie is supposed to have me asking all along? …ahh, Brian Eno is a part of this track. A lot of people, as I discover Bowie, have told me that they love anything Brian Eno touches, and the Bowie that they love are the Bowies that Eno is involved with. We are four minutes into this song before we hear any vocals. And of course they are the distant vocals of a Deep Bowie that sound more like a Gregorian Chant than anything else. Ah, the Internet tells me that this mostly instrumental track is meant to evoke the experience Bowie had while visiting Warsaw in 1973. I’ve never been to Poland, but something tells me in 1973, it was a dark place. With this soundtrack, how could it not be? The Internet tells me that he also used this track as an opener for his Isolar II and Heathen tours. What an opener! It also tells me that Joy Division also originally named their band Warsaw, in honor of this song.
9. Art Decade: These sounds are a continuous sound of “Warszawa.” There’s a darkness here, instrumentality, and electronic, sounds…oh wait, there are frogs here too? Or just the sounds of a swamp? It seems like a fitting weirdness. Because if you’re like me, you impression of Bowie, period, is that he’s weird. Now I am picturing the cover of this record, which I know to be very bright: Bowie in a dark coat with a big collar, but with a swoop of bright red-orange hair. Sheffield told me that this is a still from The Man Who Fell To Earth. Actually, it’s the movie’s poster. What a wonderful juxtaposition for such a dark album. Everything about Bowie seems to be thematic, even though those themes are constantly changing. I love anything that is thematic. And after this Live-Blog is over, I’ll need to be spending a lot more time with Low.
10. Weeping Wall: This already sounds happier. Maybe its the tinkle of piano and light, timbre of that xylophone, or whatever. The Internet tells me this track wants to evoke the misery of the Berlin Wall. Honestly, the xylophone makes it sound more upbeat than what I assume The Iron Curtain was truly like. Another instrumental song, only at 3:28. I’ll say that the longest song on this record, is the darkest. And before I got to “Warszawa” I had no idea it could get darker. But this stands the test of time. At first I was saying that this record sounds better than New Indie Rock being released today. And now I’m thinking this record is much more important for the New Indie Rock of today: it tells you that you can do whatever you want, even if it is to make a record that sounds like you are traipsing through the snow of Western Europe contemplating what Freedom means to you–because that is kind of what Low sounds like.
11. Subterraneans: Sonically, this sounds exactly what you think it will. It’s a sonic version of an Underling itself. It has a growing synthesizer sound, that only makes you feel like someone is still pushing your head under water. But it also makes you think you’d be able to breathe under water. This is the last track, and proof that there are so few words on this record, but it still allows you to feel every feeling rock music can make you feel: lonely, alive, worried, political, unimportant, and like you’re living in a world that is falling apart at the seams. People say (“people say”) that’s what the 1970s were like, but as a voice of today, I can tell you that it is pretty much what it’s like today. Hm, there’s this nice saxophone ushering me to the end of the record, like it’s all going to be OK. It’s a bit free-jazzy and a bit comforting at the same time. (Note: I do not find free jazz comforting.) Ah, and there’s Bowie’s voice. It sounds backwards. The Internet tells me they’re obscure. No shit, Internet. That is pretty much what this whole record is doing. It’s telling me that Life Is Weird and that Bowie is here to tell me all about how Weird and Lonely it can get. I like that there’s a sax telling me this at the end. As if there’s Hope out there somewhere.
Recap: I had no idea what this record was when I started. I had no idea what it was as I was hearing it for the first time. I had no idea it was mostly instrumental. I knew it was part of the Berlin Trilogy and that it came out after Station To Station, a VASTLY different record. (I guess when you snort as much blow as Bowie was supposedly snorting during the making of Station To Station and give it all up, escape Los Angeles, and go back home abroad, something radical is bound to come out.) I need to read more about Low, whether it’s beloved or not. I know there’s a 33 1/3 book on it and now I wonder what it has to say. I will be listening to this record more, trying to understand it more, but at the same time now that I know it’s background music, it might not get the attention it supposedly deserves? I guess I’ll find out. That’s what the future is for.