A Mind Journey
To every man, in his acquaintance with a new art, there comes a moment when that which before was meaningless first lifts, as it were, one corner of the curtain that hides its mystery, and reveals, in a burst of delight which later and fuller understanding can hardly ever equal, one glimpse of the indefinite possibilities within. (C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet)
In Kings of the Road, Bruno and Robert are always on the move, and at the same time, surrounded by their own walls, each of them trapped by their inability to convey their suffering (as Wenders once noted, his films always “have dealt with alienation. It’s because that’s what I saw all along, it is what I knew best from my own life.” (*)) And with all the freedom of the road movie, our travelers do come across the border between West and East Germany, an impassable obstacle that they cannot overcome. David Bowie’s Low, on the other hand, is built around an image of a person that chooses voluntary seclusion, only observing things with his mind’s eye, from behind drawn curtains; and yet, this universe is endless because “instead of receiving the whole world as his home he tends to create a micro-world inside himself.” (*) Partly recorded in a German studio overlooking the Berlin Wall, this album also explores the concept of a border; the looming presence of the Wall is a recurring theme of the instrumental half of Low – “Weeping Wall” and especially “Subterraneans.”
“Subterraneans” is filled with distant voices and a mournful saxophone, with all sounds muffled, blurred, blocked; the Wall is a slash, a cut that splits families, an everlasting tragedy that cannot (or could not, at that time) be overcome; being eternally separated, people are weeping over their fate. I also see it as a cry for help, as a reflection of David’s darkest years of drug addiction, desperation, and mental instability; as he noted during one of the 2002 shows, “it probably meant as much as anything else I did at the time.” (*) In 1976, his decision to leave everything behind and start a new life in Europe brought him to the divided and torn city of Berlin; paradoxically, this place became his protective cocoon, his “womb of Berlin – and it was a womb because of the Wall – and I guess it was all psychological to go there, I needed <it>…” (*) Low is a journey of pain, grief, and recovery; by choosing this path, just like the characters of Neverwhere, the hero has to go through the threatening darkness that drains his energy and strength. That is why Bowie’s vocals on this album are of an old and tired man, so drastically contrasting his young and boyish look.
Breaking with all of his previous albums, Bowie chooses non-narrative forms, the tracks that fade out in the mid-sentence (“Breaking Glass,” “What in the World,” “Sound and Vision”), enigmatic non-songs (“A Speed of Life,” “A New Career In a New Town”), and epic meditative instrumentals (“Warszawa,” “Art Decade,” etc.). All of them display stilled emotions, strange repetitions, glossolalia, sometimes nearing word salad, and the absence of openings and finales. And yet, the density of these fragments is overwhelmnig; even these scarce words immerse you into a scene, or a mood, sometimes more coherent than long songs from Bowie’s earlier work. For example, a terrifying “Breaking Glass” reminds me of a sequence from a horror movie, with the ending edited out (“Don’t look / At the carpet / I drew something awful on it / See.”). Dreading to find out about the finale, we are left with the picture fading out, as the album races into the next track (“What In the World”) that might or might not be connected to the previous story. I fell in love with its crazy rhythm and strange sounds, its opacity, and its depth – as Chris O’Leary has brilliantly noted, it “doesn’t feel brief, but seems to deepen and expand as it proceeds, disclosing new surfaces each time it’s played.” (*) Packed with meanings and moods, it can be seen as a musical absurdist vignette or, again, as a compressed entity – and I tend to believe the latter, especially because Bowie and his 1978 band demonstrated that it could be unpacked into a slower and more conventional live version.
Low is an unstoppable movement as well as an entranced state of observation; a train of thought racing through the depths of mind, never stopping or slowing down – even a seemingly subdued “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is filled with the same fierce energy. The protagonist’s inner gaze is made even more powerful by the seclusion, he is peering through the walls, from the inside and the outside. Just like Wenders’s heroes, he is both free and imprisoned; the wall is here, the door is closed but the portal, created by his new musical language, is wide open, showing you an insight into the universe’s splendor. To experience the utter freedom, Bruno and Robert only have to detach from their previous lives and follow the road; to encounter the prophetic inspiration, you need to guide your gaze into your soul, and the revelation will come. That’s why in “Sound and Vision” we are moments away from a poetic awakening; of course, it can only happen outside of a song after the final chords fade out (“I will sit right there / Waiting for the gift of sound and vision / Drifting into my solitude”).
Low‘s protagonist has multiple faces – “What in the World” is a great example – constantly changing appearances, flickering lights and colors, evading any direct interpretations (as noted by O’Leary, “Bowie’s tone lurches from sympathy to numbness, sometimes in the course of single line” (*)). This evasiveness, in my opinion, indirectly resembles the nature of the Ziggy Stardust album, even though during the Berlin Trilogy era Bowie distinctly distanced himself from his earlier work. Still, I see how both albums played with the angles and POVs, and how these changes marked in Ziggy by intonations and compositional techniques are fulfilled in Low, where instead of the playful and camp ambiguity, we are overwhelmed by a multitude of voices – so many that eventually, they dissipate into the absence of lyrics. However, this does not mean that the narrator disappears – on the contrary, I can hear his voice even more distinctly in the non-songs, like the transitional “A New Career in a New Town” that concludes the turbulent Side One and a sad and serene “Warszawa” that opens Side Two.
In one of the recent interviews, Brian Eno, Bowie’s co-author on Low, Heroes, and The Lodger, said that he often prefers writing “non-narrative” music, just like the impressionist paintings where “the picture spread out to be an all-over experience <…> I love Mona Lisa but sometimes I wish I could just look out the window and see that landscape.” (*) The final part of Low is a curious combination of Eno’s soundscapes and Bowie’s tunes and unearthly words, where the initial propelling energy of this album spreads around and fills the whole space. Just like a rocket that first dashes upward, and then soars in orbit, we are now seeing the world from above, from a bird’s eye view, with a certain degree of detachment and yet with a gripping sense of compassion. Because no one can say that “Warszawa,” the central instrumental track, lacks a feeling – on the contrary, it is bristling with colors and emotions, with scenes that each of us can visualize so easily. I see a sea coast and distant cries; I see the twilight sky and a dark forest; I see a slender figure of a woman peering into a distance. On the album, it is a destination; on a 1978 tour, it is an entrance into the magic world of Low and Heroes: this composition always opened the Isolar II concerts, thus immersing the audience in a unique and powerful universe of a new word and sound.
To be continued…
Katya Neklyudova, 2021
P. S. The title image is a screenshot from Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders (1987)