David Bowie's Low to a lot of people is just that, low. They see it as anything from melancholic to dull, and all points in between. To me, it suits my temperament, at least in part, as it is both stripped down and bare, as well as being built up and multilayered, I am nothing if not consistently contradictory, but I am willing to admit that. This is an album made up of hard edges and soft curves, of focused sharp, short beats, and flowing electronic scapes of land and dream. It is an album of two sides of who we are and where we are.
When albums had sides, the first side of Low had lyrics and the voice of David Bowie. The songs were short, stripped down, bleak pop songs for a bleak period in cultural history. The second side was devoid of lyrics and nearly devoid of vocals. There were long tracks of rich ambient scapes, more mystical than pop. Many who bought or listened to the album took the first side and dismissed the second. Me, I fell in love with the painterly constructed ambience of side two.
I used to listen to this album while reading and rereading the stories of H P Lovecraft. To me the music seemed a perfect match to the alien and isolated landscapes, and the alien and isolated individuals that pepper Lovecraft's work. A large part of what appealed to me about the stories of Lovecraft was the bleak alien landscapes, the expanses of bleakness that rolled out and swallowed many of the characters, sometimes literally.
The cover of Low has David Bowie in the persona of Thomas Jerome Newton, the tragic figure from the 1976 Nicholas Roeg movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, Low was released in the following year, 1977. Thomas Jerome Newton was a literal alien, an individual isolated in his alienness on a planet full of humanity.
Although the reference to The Man Who Fell To Earth is obvious, to me the individual on the Low cover, set within an abstracted indistinct and remote landscape, could easily have been a character from the works of H P Lovecraft, and it made perfect sense to connect the two, Bowie and Lovecraft, at least in my world.
I grew up in West Cornwall, at the end of a long rocky peninsula, one that stuck out like a crooked finger deep into the Atlantic Ocean. I lived amongst open rough moorland, often devoid of trees and comfy meadows, it was all granite and heather. It was a harsh and certainly unrelenting landscape, buffeted by near constant Atlantic winds, sheets of rain, and sea fog that would rise up and slowly creep in from the ocean, folding the landscape in muffled isolation.
The landscape of your early years is often the landscape that you are most comfortable with, it is the one that sits in the back of your head, the one that comes out and lays itself out in your dreams, the landscape of connection.
I am sure that the element of stripped down bleakness from Low, connects with those early landscapes of mine, just as the built up mystical ambience of Low connects with another part of me, perhaps a connection with my inner landscape. It is all part of who we are, our memories, our living landscape, and our sleeping dreamscape, all meshed together to give us the projection of who we are to ourselves, and who we are to others.
This Bowie album was probably the most brutal to his fans, many of whom had never got beyond the created Ziggy persona. It was as far removed from the glamour of Ziggy as it was possible to go, deliberately I would have guessed. There seemed nothing that Bowie loathed more than sameness, to be creatively stuck in a rut, stuck in the one project, looping and relooping. Whilst many of his fans would have been more than happy with Bowie basing his whole career on that one Ziggy project, he was obviously not going to stay there.
A large slice of the Low project was the work of the ambient meister Brian Eno, one of the founders of modern ambient music. In some respects, you could say that this was as much an Eno project as it was a Bowie one, but Bowie the alienated alien, Bowie the searching artist, the misunderstood, and the deliberately misunderstanding, was all there, so it would be wrong, as some would have it, that Bowie was led astray from his rock/pop roots by Eno. Low was where Bowie wanted and needed to be at that moment in time, and Eno was there to facilitate that moment, but the moment was still Bowies.
Although Low was seen by many at the time as some form of deliberate artistic and creative suicide, what they really meant was that it was commercial suicide. It didn't turn out to be so of course, but that line between the artistic and the commercial is always a difficult one for any artist to tread, particularly if you have had a commercial success. What do you do? Do you keep to the commercial formula that has worked for you, reproduce the same record, book, or artwork, over and over, with only slight variations, or do you head out for vistas new?
I am aware that a lot of the factors that go to make up a project like Low are in the personal orbit of the artist, many of the factors of course will never be known. However, interpretation is also the remit of the audience, and that is always, on one level at least, subjective, it has to be as we are all at the centre of our own perceptions. So my interpretation of Low is valid, because it is personal to me. It is part of my journey, and therefore threaded into my life pattern, to serve me and my purpose, and that can and probably should be true of all artwork, whatever the discipline.
To end with a small but significant fact, the original Low album was meant by Bowie not to have a track listing, but the record company insisted, they were struggling with the Low concept as it was. A compromise was reached whereby the track listings were put on a removeable sticker on the back of the album. If you wished, you could remove it in order to experience the full ambience of the Low experience. I of course removed it, cause I'm that kind of guy.