A few of the slow songs drag, but mostly this is a fine set from the peak of Bowie’s glam period. Mick Ronson proves to be as much the star as Bowie himself. It’s interesting to know these guys were performing “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and quite well actually. For what it’s worth, this was recorded during the Ziggy Stardust tour, but only released over two decades later.
In some ways, this is a transitional effort: the close of Bowie’s late 1970s style and the beginning of his forays into 80s pop. The eclectic eccentricities of Lodger are held in check, focused around a more steady pop sensibility. This is still quirky art rock, but it flows together as an album better. Even if it lacks any individual song as good as “Modern Love” from Let’s Dance or “D.J.” from Lodger, there is not a bad tune anywhere. It would take Bowie a long, long time to make an album this good again — and it could be argued he never did.
After the glam hard rock of Aladdin Sane and the nostalgic (and poorly-received) Pin Ups, David Bowie returned, somewhat, to the theatrics of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Mick Ronson and The Spiders From Mars are gone, but Bowie’s own guitar playing is sturdy and effective, if more economical and scrappy.
“Rebel Rebel” is one of Bowie’s catchiest guitar riffs. “Diamond Dogs” is another great one here, with its solid glam beat and gracefully dingy horns. Of the tracks that aren’t on the radio or best-of collections, “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” is perhaps the best, and most instructive. It (and the soulful “We Are the Dead”) points towards Bowie’s focus on his singing that would lead to the R&B rave-up title track to Young Americans and the excellent cabaret ballad “Wild Is the Wind” on Station to Station.
There is a concept of sorts behind this album, something about a dystopian future like in George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (Bowie was denied rights by the author’s estate to make a direct adaptation of the novel). The concept helps the album, not in the direct structure of a cohesive overall story line, but in providing a kernel of inspiration that gets individual songs going. There is more social commentary here than on perhaps any other Bowie album.
Really, Diamond Dogs is one of Bowie’s best.
Bowie’s career doggedly refuses to drift into total irrelevance. ‘Hours…’, like so many other later efforts, features one pretty good song — “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” — amidst a lot of not bad but definitely boring, pro forma contemporary rock. This is certainly a lot more consistent than Earthling, but that previous record came up with more than one pretty good song (even if those were balanced with some cringe-inducing moments). Now Bowie had largely dropped the electronic industrial sound (except, ironically for the best song here, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell”). His next effort, Heathen would improve on this album, again with one really good song (“Sunday”) but with filler that was much better and less boring.
CAN’s Tago Mago — half full-bore rock half ambient soundscapes — sketches the outlines of Low but this album sounds like no other. It represents is the beginning of Bowie’s “Berlin” period, the creative peak of his long and distinguished career. He made this album as a work of art. It is invigorating to hear someone not content to merely accept the confines of tradition, but try to work out new expression.
Even with its experimentation and avant-gardism, Low is always a pop record. David Bowie always had a flair for the dramatic. Here, his bold use of space and inverted compositions are a different kind of showiness. Bowie’s audacious attitude has purpose. He crafts Low like an artist burning inside.
Brian Eno is a major contributor to Low. He is the perfect foil for Bowie, and side two wouldn’t be the same without Eno’s presence. Even Iggy Pop appears for some backing vocals. Bowie was a major force in Iggy’s solo breakout The Idiot where he began honing the techniques employed here.
While there are some singles that came off the album, the full impact of Low comes on slowly. Deeply textured sounds present themselves with time. Bowie presents himself as an observer but one who’s objectivity has dissolved. His style is reflective of personal discovery. He becomes a part of his songs, and seemingly a part of a barren landscape.
“Be My Wife” is a dense number with pounding lines from the piano, electric washes of guitar and electronically process drum beats. There are few lyrics. An older Bowie comes to accept what he probably has known all along. The music lilts with his carefree pining but swells in gripping climaxes. The rhythm hesitates for each word. The jarring dynamics play into the compositions. They highlight but also mislead. There is simply too much to take in at once, so each time you listen there is another way to hear the songs.
Funky plastic soul (Neu!-beat really) from side one gives way to bleak anti-rock sound collages of side two. “Warszawa” is the centerpiece of the second side. Stark harmonies and unconventional melodies cast a sorrowful shadow on post WWII Europe. Bowie sings a few sounds, then stops as if he can’t go any further. It gets pretty intense. The music is still enjoyable, despite the grim realities lurking around every corner. Europe, of course, has a deeper connection to Euro-classical than anywhere else. Rock and roll is foreign. It makes sense than rock musicians in (of from) Europe have pulled the two together most spectacularly.
Bowie has been called a Warholian manipulator of surfaces. There is some truth to that, but Low could crush you under its weight. On a very basic level, Low maintains the essence of Bowie’s work in adapting broad concepts into his new music. His compositions use chunks much bigger than individual “notes.” Low, through Bowie’s own grammar, painted the perfect picture of a divided Europe. His determination is like a snowplow on some isolated mountain road. There is the risk of becoming stranded in unfamiliar territory but a greater purpose drives him forward. He has purpose, which makes his efforts so enduring.
Low is not just entertaining, it tells us something pure and unassailable about the bleak world from which it came — it evolved from Bowie’s role playing an alien who comes to Earth to save his home planet but gets lost in aimless hedonism in the Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Low is about a change of direction. That change isn’t inherently for the better. Still, the album is the very embodiment of artistic renewal, and so it is both enlightening and inspiring.
I’ve gone through many phases with this album, Earthling. I rather liked it at first, but then later on it felt dated and I couldn’t stand it. Giving it another go during a period of revisiting some Bowie recordings, it seems like one of his better late-career efforts. It’s clear he’s trying, though sometimes he’s trying too hard to seem “with it”. He jumped aboard the electronica bandwagon, deploying industrial drum ‘n bass, or whatever they were calling the microgenre that month. The whole affair seems a bit uneven, and it’s hard to do anything with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” but cringe. Yet there are a fair number of high points, the highest being “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a song that can rub shoulders with any of Bowie’s best songs from any era. Sure, I was probably right when I though this would sound a little dated, but Bowie seems to be legitimately enjoying making this music most of the time (even if “Looking for Satellites,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Seven Years in Tibet” reveal him to be getting lyrical inspiration from watching movies and satellite TV). It shows most in his vocals, which have both an energy and nuance that he hadn’t mustered in while. One last note: isn’t it odd that Bowie’s better work has come during the periods when he’s been married?
Uneven and ultimately not very satisfying. Part adult contemporary dad-rock, part down-tempo electronic, and part jazzy new age, Bowie isn’t taking many chances. This soundtrack album has a few charms (a high level of craftsmanship in the production helps), and glides by amicably enough. But hindsight makes this seem dated.
Bowie is still searching for his own sound, and he tries out a wide array of styles here. He still has one foot in Donovan-like folk sounds (“All the Madmen,” “After All”). But he also makes forays into Led Zeppelin style hard rock with a blues twinge (“Black Country Rock,” “She Shook Me Cold”). There are even hints that Bowie could pull off rock opera like he did on Ziggy Stardust (“Running Gun Blues,” “Saviour Machine”). But what makes this album notable is that it marks the arrival of Mick Ronson on guitar, who would prove the key to Bowie making it big. Ronson fuels the proto-glam musings of “The Width of a Circle” and the title track with panache. What separates this from most of what came later is that later on Bowie’s best individual songs had an almost hermetic perfection, with everything so finely tuned that not a single note sounds out of place. Here things are pretty loose and jammy even. If the songwriting wasn’t so tentative and uneven this could have really been something. As it stands, it’s a decent but somewhat undeveloped affair. Bowie fans will appreciate this most for what it does and doesn’t reveal about what came next. This still may be the darkest record in his catalog. Those unfamiliar with Bowie should start elsewhere.
Hunky Dory is the album where Bowie started to really show some promise. There are a lot of classic songs: “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life on Mars?,” “Queen Bitch.” With “Eight Line Poem” (and even “The Bewlay Brothers”) he manages to channel The Velvet Underground‘s Loaded, but pushes the Velvets’ underground rock toward something a little more pop friendly. However, Bowie keeps one foot firmly planted in routine British folk-rock for much of the middle part of the album and it becomes tiresome quickly. Ziggy Stardust twisted the folk sensibilities a bit more, by adding rock opera to the mix. In a more straightforward folk-rock setting he is underwhelming. This is a very decent album, but don’t believe the claims it is Bowie’s best.
David Bowie’s career underwent something of a sea change between his debut and his sophomore album — curiously, both self-titled. On the debut, he charted a path firmly in line with prim and proper British folk pop, albeit with an intelligent wit and alacrity. For this, his second album, he switches sides and turns toward the counter-culture (just look at the changes in hairstyles on the album covers!), with a far more modern sound rooted in the folk-rock of Donovan and the like. Yet this album is listenable only about once, with lots of stilted, half-formed songs and rather under-developed performances. The hints of pure rock on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” and elsewhere proved to be the way forward for Bowie. He would go further in that direction with his next effort, The Man Who Sold the World.