This review originally ran in Rolling Stone as part of a series that looked back at classic albums.
“I blew my nose one day and half my brains came out.” With these gentle words, David Bowie said farewell to L.A., where he’d spent much of the mid-Seventies buried up to his clavicle in white powder, and fled back to Europe for some personal detox — not to mention some of the most amazing music of his amazing career. Low, released in January 1977, was a new beginning for Bowie, kicking off what is forever revered as his “Berlin trilogy,” despite the fact that Low was mostly recorded just outside Paris. Side One consists of seven fragments, some of them manic synth-pop songs, some just chilly atmospherics. Side Two consists of four brooding electronic instrumentals. Both sides glisten with ideas: Listening to Low, you hear Kraftwerk and Neu!, maybe some Ramones, loads of Abba and disco. But Low flows together into a lyrical, hallucinatory, miraculously beautiful whole, the music of an overstimulated mind in an exhausted body, as rock’s prettiest sex vampire sashays through some serious emotional wreckage.
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Brian Eno gets much of the credit for Low — not only did he play keyboards on six of the eleven tracks and co-write “Warszawa,” but you can hear the heavy influence of his own solo records, especially Another Green World. Still, Eno only dreamed about making noise like this, mainly because he never assembled a band anywhere near this great: A big hand, please, for the fuzzed-out guitars of Ricky Gardiner and Carlos Alomar, and the fantastic production of Tony Visconti, who distorted Dennis Davis’ snare to create one of rock’s all-time most imitated drum sounds. Bowie sings haikulike lyrics about emotional death and rebirth, sometimes hilarious (“Breaking Glass”), sometimes brutally honest, as in the electric-blue loneliness of “Sound and Vision” and “Be My Wife” or the doomed erotic obsession of “Always Crashing in the Same Car.”
The record company begged Bowie not to release Low, but it became a surprise hit and holds up today as one of his most intense and influential albums, inspiring two excellent Berlin trilogy sequels, Heroes (1977) and the insanely underrated Lodger (1979). It makes sense that Bowie released Low the week after he turned thirty, for the same reasons it sounds so timely today: Low is the sound of the slinky vagabond falling to earth, trying to catch up with the speed of life — and maybe even find some kind of home there.
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