College Music Journal NOVEMBER 10, 2000 - by Jem Aswad


Arguably the most influential body of rock music produced in the '70s, Bowie's "triptych" of albums in collaboration with Brian Eno began as a reaction against the disco hits and cocaine-fueled rock 'n roll suicide that our hero had been enjoying in the years preceding Low. Bowie moved to a small apartment in Berlin and emerged with his most experimental and uncommercial music to date. Abandoning traditional song structure (and in some cases, traditional language), Low veers between languid tone-poem instrumentals and angular, evocative songs that positively celebrate isolation and withdrawal ("Pale blinds drawn all day / Nothing to read, nothing to say"). Yet for all the album's depressive impressionism, the lyrics are hilarious: Tales of driving in circles in hotel garages and drawing awful things on carpets are the album's most vivid signs of life. Although perceived as commercial suicide at the time, Low was almost singlehandedly responsible for the synth-pop generation that arose shortly thereafter (without this album, there could have been no Gary Numan). While similar in sound and format to its predecessor, "Heroes" marked a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn in mood - this album jabs and lurches with music every bit as physical as the burgeoning punk rock of the time. From the ominous, bruising Beauty And The Beast and Joe The Lion to the ice-funk of The Secret Life Of Arabia to the dazzling title track (perhaps the best song he's ever written), the experimentation of Low had led to a revitalizing new approach to songwriting, and the backing band (especially guitarist Robert Fripp) and Eno's brilliant sonic subtext match him every step of the way. (During this intensely prolific time, Bowie also produced and co-wrote two excellent albums with Iggy Pop, The Idiot and Lust For Life.) The underrated Lodger is probably the most bizarre album of Bowie's career. In 1979, the album was every bit as commercial as its cover: a disturbing depiction of a horribly contorted Bowie stretched out in an operating room. In line with the album's disjointed artwork, Bowie and Eno employed virtually every offbeat songwriting method within reach-musicians switched instruments, entire backing tracks were played backwards, and songs were "composed" as the pair pointed to chords on a chart and the musicians did their best to keep up. Although the lyrical subject matter is often as challenging as the music (Fantastic Voyage deals with nuclear holocaust; Repetition with wife-beating), the album is positively dripping with wicked irony ("I am a D.J., and I've got believers"), and features a prescient world music influence that opened the floodgates for Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, etc., to follow. Uneasy listening for an uneasy time, these albums represent an artist at the peak of his creative powers, and they continue to shape popular music to this day.