The year was 1976. David Bowie had recently starred in his first feature length film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, a weird cross between Doctor Who and Citizen Kane with the surrealism cranked to eleven. It’s not hard to look back at the film’s themes of decadence and disconnection and not see a link to the star’s own addictions and problems at the time of filming, nor to trace the same motifs to the singer’s next effort Low the following year. The first of Bowie’s so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’ was actually recorded mainly in France, but the title is still appropriate given the heavy influence of german artists like Kraftwerk and Can on the record, particularly the electronic influenced second half. And of course where would any avant-garde pop reinvention be without Brian Eno in tow?
Throughout most of the album the music is kept abstract and intangible as possible, with actual lyrics few and far between, a far cry from the star who had built his career on narrative-based concept albums. Yet there is still a story here, it’s simply not spelled out for the listener in such a concrete way as say The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, but rather it attempts to plug them directly into the creator’s state of mind. Songs like ‘Breaking Glass’ feel like they end halfway too early, as if Bowie’s depressed mindset cannot focus on a single idea long enough to lead it to it’s conclusion. On ‘Be My Wife’ he sings of feelings of loneliness and a desire for company that his apathetic vocal performance has little relation to, a trick of dissonance he had previously perfected with his Thin White Duke persona. Only the techno-funk of ‘What In The World’ could possibly be called a misstep and that’s another short one.
While the first half’s tunes have a grin-and-bear-it vibe, that’s all promptly thrown out the window with the electronica-inspired side two, starting with the aching, haunting ‘Warszawa’ (Warsaw), a song so bleak Joy Division took their original name from it. This is followed by its less despairing but equally as mysterious counterpart ‘Art Decade’. In a way these almost entirely instrumental tracks convey all the emptiness and melancholy that the preceding rock numbers can only hint at. They are also where Eno’s influence is most keenly felt, with ‘Warszawa’ in particular making use of his famously experimental writing techniques. The album ends with ‘Subterraneans’, fittingly a tribute to the plight of the West Berliners who found themselves trapped in the sea of Soviet occupied territory at World War II’s end. The closing saxophone solo is the perfect summation of the record: arty and avant garde, but not in the least bit lacking emotional punch.