Fun story: I used to have this soneg set as my ringtone, back when everyone spent an inordinate amount of time picking out customized ringtones. It did not ruin the joy of the song for me, because not very many people ever called my phone. It is, in fact, kind of a nice memory, though it dates me as a millennial. Another thing that strikes me, as a millennial: how this kind of shimmering instrumental soundscape, which sounds like it should have come entirely out of a computer, is made entirely of real instruments. David Bowie, of course, did not have the millennial luxury of composing on a laptop in his bedroom. He had to actually leave the house and do his work in collaboration with other people. Which is, for everyone except the most solipsistic, the best way to create music. It was, famously, the milieu of the recording that informed Bowie’s most highly regarded recordings. He may have written of himself as a tortured mind who never opens the shutters, but he was also a globetrotting superstar, and he was soaking up the unique flavor of alienation native to Los Angeles, and that of sedentary rural France, and finally, the sick metropolis of Berlin.
The words ‘sound and vision’ became a little bit of a catchphrase for David Bowie in later years. They were the name of a comprehensive compilation and the tagline of a world tour. Because ‘sound’ plus ‘vision’ equals ‘visionary sound’ aka genius and the whole shebang. But at the time Low was being created, those things seemed more like, at the very least, uncomfortable burdens. This is the work of a man in the throes of cocaine-induced pseudo-schizophrenia. Bowie often said that he hadn’t been doing all that blow because it was fun; he did it because it allowed him to be inhumanly productive. In that context, the creativity of ‘sound and vision’ is more like an inner demon that had to be purged, or at least made peace with. But, much like Heroes, the works produced from dark lows come to be seen as triumphalist symbols of… not dying in the low, I guess.
Every David Bowie album has been my favorite at one point or another, because each one suits a different need and reflects a different point in time. There’s so much David Bowie that there’s a David Bowie for every conceivable occasion. Low has the distinction of being the most perennial. It’s the Bowie album that, for me, fits every occasion. Being wordless for long stretches, and cryptic when he does decide to open his mouth, Low can be inscribed with any mood. Although the title of the album was very much a reflection of the artist’s emotional state at the time, the music doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Though the angst is undeniable, there are many bright moments too, with a sense of vision and purpose, feelings of triumph and hope. It’s as emotionally complex a piece of music as David Bowie has ever been responsible for. It suits me when I have the blues, and it suits me when I don’t.