“One day I blew my nose and half my brains came out.” That was David Bowie in 1976, nearing the end of a years-long coke binge that had burned through the better part of his nasal passages and rendered him so clammy and paranoid he was diving into black magic to escape, drawing pentagrams on the floor of his L.A. apartment, keeping his own urine in jars in the refrigerator and burning black candles as protection from evil spirits. He was seeing ghosts, giving loopy interviews heavy on Hitler-praising pull-quotes and his marriage to Angie was on the verge of collapse.
And so Bowie, with Iggy Pop in tow, went to Berlin to get clean (an aim at which he only fitfully succeeded) and, as he put it, “[to discover] a new musical language.” Low, the first part of his celebrated Berlin Trilogy and the first stage in a full sonic reinvention. Unlike the plastic soul of Young Americans or Station to Station‘s manic panic, Low revels in total existential blankness. Bowie was openly in the thrall of bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk, and Low clearly reflects the influence of the former’s stentorian, motorik rhythms and the latter’s subzero synthesizers.
The album is famously divided into two halves, with a batch of Bowie-sung “song fragments” counterbalanced by a suite of gorgeous but deeply unsettling ambient-instrumentals; what’s most notable is that, spiritually, Bowie feels as ice-cold and absent on the songs where he sings as on the ones where he doesn’t. Herky-jerk “Breaking Glass,” with its hectoring Carlos Alomar guitar line finds Bowie as self-referential as he’d ever been, darkly warning “don’t look at the carpet — I drew something awful on it,” before snidely declaring: “you’re such a wonderful person — but you’ve got problems.” De facto pop single “Sound And Vision” — if only because no other song on the album features an immediate hook — finds him distrusting his own senses, cooing “Don’t you wonder, sometimes, ’bout sound and vision?” over the kind of chilly cascading synths that typically turn up on Joy Division albums.
As solid and striking as the vocals are, though, Low‘s back half is where it moves from experiment to masterpiece. Using layer upon layer of unholy synthesizer, Bowie — with the help of producer Brian Eno, himself no stranger to the power of ambiance — create an entire, flickering nighttime urban cityscape, where hustle and busyness (“A New Career in a New Town”) slowly give way to the awful eeriness of nighttime (“Subterraneans”). Bowie’s voice appears in fits and starts, mostly chanting strange, monosyllabic nonsense words — a thin, pale warlock looking glumly into his cauldron, drawn and spent. Taken together, the two halves of Low offer a picture of an artist at a crossroads, unsure of where to go next, but knowing all roads lead to darkness.