"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno

Boston Globe SEPTEMBER 27, 2017 - by David Weininger


The first thing you hear is the sound of the snare drum: flat, pitch-bent, and distorted, as if all its snap and crackle had been captured and sent down some dark hole. Even now, more than four decades after being recorded, it still catches your ear as one of the most wholly original sounds in pop music.

This is the sound of Speed Of Life, the instrumental that opens David Bowie"s 1977 album Low. There's other stuff going on, of course - Bowie's cascading synthesizers, Carlos Alomar's splintering guitar, the rock-solid groove of the rhythm section. But it was that snare sound - created by producer Tony Visconti with a digital processor called an Eventide Harmonizer - that served notice that a new era was at hand.

Low was the first of what has come to be known in Bowieology as the "Berlin Trilogy" of albums, along with "Heroes" and Lodger. The "Berlin" label is something of a misnomer, since the three albums were recorded in various places around Europe (and, in the case of Lodger, New York). But Berlin was where Bowie fled to in 1976, trying to escape the personal turmoil and titanic drug habit that had engulfed him while he lived in Los Angeles, and which had put his career, personal life, and very sanity in peril. "The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth," he would later say.

In Berlin, he was largely anonymous: "I wanted to believe me / I wanted to be good / I wanted no distractions / Like every good boy should," he sings on Beauty And The Beast, the song that leads off "Heroes". In the company of Brian Eno, Visconti, and a stellar assembly of musicians, he embraced the avant-garde, set about remaking himself, and created the most influential music of his career.

This phase is explored in thrillingly generous detail on A New Career In A New Town, the latest in a series of box sets documenting the artist's chameleonic musical shifts with the archival treatment - remastering, previously unreleased tracks - they deserve. The results are familiar to devotees, yet to hear them unfurled here, in excellent sound, is to appreciate Bowie's intrepidity anew.

Here is Low, impeccably balanced between fractured pop songs and instrumentals influenced by the ambient music Eno had pioneered. The title song of "Heroes", with Robert Fripp's feedback-drenched guitars and Bowie's immortal image of lovers kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, constitutes six of the greatest minutes in pop music, but the wordless Sense Of Doubt and Moss Garden are, in their own way, almost as thrilling. Perhaps the most audacious thing Bowie did was to take this fragile art music and make it into an arena rock show, as documented on the live album Stage. Visconti has remixed Lodger, always the toughest nut of the trilogy to crack, and the greater sense of space and presence make it easier to appreciate the irresistibly weird energy of D.J. and Boys Keep Swinging.

Scary Monsters, the last album included here, signaled that another transformation was at hand. Bowie was now recording in New York, the experimentalism had been pared, and in songs like Ashes To Ashes and Fashion, a new balance between commercial appeal and artistic integrity had been struck. Soon Bowie would release Let's Dance and punch his ticket to superstardom. But for a few years, living in semi-obscurity in Europe, he would accomplish something precious and rare, even for him: He had not just made outstanding music; he had created the future.