Thursday, June 8, 2017

Talking Through the Gloom

Today’s formative-album replay: David Bowie Low. This album seems to have been designed to prove that, in much the same way Bowie is most himself in alien drag, his music may be more personally expressive the more he appears to blend into its scenery. Not only are more than half of Low’s songs ostensibly instrumentals, but the vocals Bowie does contribute are largely tuneless, garbled, diffident, or uncharacteristically delicate, and even in the songs that do have vocals the instruments do most of the musical heavy lifting.

And yet, even without his lyrics and his camp baritone there to spell it out for us, the free-floating anguish and anomie conveyed by this record are almost overpowering. They start spilling out from the opening ooze of “Speed of Life,” which fades up into a world-weary strut; the mood is sour but the sound is rich, skidding and sliding in big muddy puddles. The next two songs, “Breaking Glass” and “What in the World” are terse, clenched, and sickly, yet also strangely vigorous, St. Vitus dances in a psych ward. The clouds part for the masterful, circumspect “Sound and Vision,” which relaxes into a real groove long enough to achieve beatific lift-off over a subtle Bo Diddley beat (I’ll just pause to note that since Bowie’s death, this song’s paradoxical mystery and clarity have acquired a prayerlike aspect for me--perhaps because I arranged it as a memorial tribute for my church band and invited Donny McCaslin to play along). But then it’s back to the self-defeating loop of despair and irresolution with “Always Crashing in the Same Car” and the surprisingly grim, anxious “Be My Wife,” both of which let the band do most of the (hesitant, circular) talking. The instrumental that closes the first side, “New Career in a New Town,” may be the record’s sunniest respite, with the irresistible twist of repeatedly diving over the edge of a tenuous beat into a big, splashing jam.

Then, of course, there’s Side Two, the Eno ambience suite, which I’ve always admired more than loved, even as I’ve also always recognized it as an essential part of Low’s strange, hypnotic alchemy, and hence never conceive of skipping after the rattled clatter of Side One. This otherworldly synth soundscape has mostly aged well--elephant roars, woozy theremin, Reich-ian marimbas, and all--but I still warm most eagerly to the seductive Arctic fog of “Subterraneans,” not least for its climactic bout of speaking-in-tongues by Bowie, in possibly his most melodic vocal on the record. By the end of a full listen to this remarkable, mood-altering record I typically feel a bit lost, adrift--low, even. All that’s left to do: sit right down and wait for the gift.

Previous Bowie replays: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Hunky Dory. Other Bowie-related posts here and here.

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