And I will show you something
different from either
your shadow at morning striding
Or your shadow at evening rising to
I will show you fear in a handful of
— T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead”
David Bowie always played with alienation, or so it seems to me. Think about Major Tom, helpless in the enormity of space in spite of celebrity (Planet Earth is blue / and there’s nothing I can do), to his return to Earth years later, in “Ashes to Ashes,” the junkie your mother warned you not to mess with. There’s the unnamed girl in “Life on Mars?”, that beautiful little vignette of angst and escape into fantasy, when the grim scene of parents fighting and absent friends proves to be too much. But those were other stories. Maybe they contained some of how Bowie felt at the time, but you can lose yourself in those songs; dance to them and mouth the words. They’re almost....comfortable.
Low, as a whole, or as (to quote Eliot again) a heap of broken images, remains, forty years later, profoundly uncomfortable. Low is the work of an artist struggling to reintegrate a broken self, and by the end of it, one is unsure if the treatment has worked for Bowie, or for the listener. For me, it has a tough beauty: floating and cold, with lyrics that fade in and out like a radio signal consumed by static. Even the most “accessible” of its songs, “Sound and Vision,” sounds like a plea: return to me the gifts of sound and vision; I’m lost without them.
Sometimes, for an artist, there are things that you want to make, and things that you have to make; whatever’s inside will come out, and maybe it will destroy you in the process. Low falls into this category. The life that Bowie was leading before Low, in spite of the output of those years, was no life: it was disintegration, coming faster and faster, and he knew it. Low does indeed show us one man’s fear, and the process of tunneling out: you retreat to your room, or create languages that don’t exist. Create an ambient suite of cityscapes. How will you come back to yourself, after the self you thought you knew, dies?
I don’t want to reduce Low’s achievement, or its influence on what came after it, to a mere therapeutic exercise for its maker, or for its listeners. It is larger than that, for me. While a current of fear is everywhere on the album, there is also its opposite: a calm underneath the relentless fragmentation. I have nothing to lose now. I’ve already lost it all. Bowie is not one of his personas here, those slick trickster selves that were so easy to slip on, and maybe so hard to leave behind. Everything has been stripped away here, and Bowie demands that we listen to it. “Warszawa,” the longest piece on the album, first track on the second side, is an astonishing sonic portrait, considering that Bowie spent so little time in Warsaw (accounts have him there for only a few hours at most, between trains). The music rolls in and over, like fog; what words are heard are a language that Bowie made up, sounding vaguely eastern European, but at moments a word that sounds like Kyrie leaps up, snapping it back into a real place, if not a real time.
For me, Low stands out of time. It doesn’t have the glam-giddiness of the Bowie from the earlier ‘70s, and you can’t hear what Bowie would become in the ‘80s, a bleach-blonde beast in a magnificent suit (another guise). If Blackstar is a meditation on the death of Bowie’s physical body, then Low is the meditation on the death of Bowie’s psychic self: all of the shards of his personality, wrapped up in Brian Eno’s ambient creations, filter out what he did not want. It is not easy to say what he did want; freedom, maybe, or maybe to be left alone with the sounds in his head. Inner space here replaces all of the outer space metaphors about loneliness and alienation that came before. Bowie’s sunken dream of a room filled with sound and vision is ours to have, if only we listen for the signals.