The Sound of Something
I probably wouldn’t have listened to the David Bowie / Brain Eno collaboration “Low”, in the first place, if Pitchfork hadn’t called it: THE GREATEST ALBUM OF THE 1970s. Yes, “The”. It’s kind of like those mainstream academic lit snobs pronouncing Ulysses the greatest novel of the 20th century. No one's saying it's not great, but who the hell actually reads that thing?
You know how you like to flip on some music in the car or the living room, something cool, something that says something about you for playing it, and you wait for that golden moment when the people you're with ask what it is, and you tell them, and they say, “Oh, that's cool, I should check them out”, and you say “It's a solo artist actually”, and then you turn them onto this great thing, and feel great about it, and the music is mutually enjoyed? Low is useless for that.
It's not a hang out and play and feel cool album, which is at least one of the criteria necessary for THE "best of the decade" pick. See, you can soak in sonic bliss with “OK Computer”, Pitchfork's ‘90s pick, and you can soak in sonic, uh, youth, with “Daydream Nation”, Pitchfork’s ‘80s pick. But Low? No. Just try it, I dare you.
So, according to my review, it's over-hyped, which is only the fault of the hypers, but is the worst sin, and my raison d’vitriol. I can’t stand over-hyped things, blue skies, lobsters, you know. So Pitchfork hyped it, and killed it for me. I’d probably love Low if I’d “discovered” it on my own, and had some claim to lay. And why does it have to be a “hang out and feel cool” album? Maybe it’s a headphone album, right? Sit down, close your eyes, and listen. Well, I guess I haven't found the right place to sit or the right pair of headphones. But I’ll give it another try.
It starts promising, innovative studio tricks draw my attention on the opener “Speed of Life”. It’s an almost down-to-earth track, it’s cool WITH you, not AT you. Low kind of caresses your face at first, then begins to claw at it like a clingy tweaker. Trademark Bowie/Eno chutzpah to open with an instrumental. Then we’re into standard B-side Bowie happy-go-lucky turgidness, sarcastic and why should I care? It’s very brevity says something, I’m sure. Yeah. It’s surely the sound of... something. Something I’ll never know, so I’ll slag it.
“Be My Wife” is more sound of something with obnoxious hammering piano bass. So maybe it’s supposed to be obnoxious. If I google-imaged the original gate fold, would everything become clear? It’s so sound of something, I’m soaking in it. Something to do with the late ‘70s, proto-‘80s, and Bowie, and hitting an all-time low, and Eno’s new music machines. Another portal to nowhere. Actually it’s more of a porthole, grimy glass in the bowels of a vessel, starship, steamship, who knows and who cares? A good Bowie album is a portal, transportative.
“Always Crashing in the Same Car”. Good titles, anyway. Makes me wanna say, “let the children boogay”. Neato sound effects. They do some cool things with their new machines. The songs are deceptively songlike, drums and bass where they're supposed to be, but ultimately subsumed in conceptual noodling. Very soulful conceptual noodling though. Or perhaps soulless conceptual noodling, same difference?
I have to admit, there’s something intriguing about trying to connect these sickly synths with titles like “A New Career in a New Town”. Problem is, I'm not stoned enough to really relish the task. Also, I doubt the comic value of the music is intentional. Sorry guys, I'm from the World of Tomorrow, it's not your fault.
The second “side” (I know, I’m not worthy to review this album), starting with “Warszawa”, is where it really begins to justify my scorn, or better yet, the scorn of a more righteous musical arbiter. Certainly it does its job of, I assume, making me feel like a fluorescent-lit Thatcher-drone with a bad haircut and flickering soul. But c’mon, it's supposed to be the Best Album of the ‘70s. The SEVENTIES!
Oh I get it, it’s a “composition”. Yeah, sorry, you're over-reaching Eno, and Bowie, your uber-ethnic vocalizations are not helping. Aha, but maybe they’re meant to hinder, haha!
“Art Decade”. Goddamn, that’s hilarious. Maybe I'm not crediting this album with the sarcasm it truly wields. That's what I always hear in Bowie, sarcasm and sincerity sinewed together seamlessly where intent is non-existent. Too bad about the music though – I could write a glowing review based on the track titles.
Compositionally, this “song” is pretty good. It sounds like a death march. I’d play it at my funeral, if I didn’t expect any friends or family to survive me. I understand the stylistic need for synthetic brass, but this song might be listenable if that shit wasn’t in the mix. It’s harmonically rising, not up to the light, but to "Weeping Wall", the next track, team Bowie's next sedative kicking in. It’s saw-waves and bell synths and nervy vibrato, and even gooder composition, and ever more sickly sound. You understand why Eno pitched himself in front of a bus: as a suicide note, this album is pitch-perfect. That Pitchfork writer was making a statement, I get it! A misanthropic pick - for being relegated to a picker, a list maker. Now THAT I can respect. And if there’s one thing any self-respecting person wants, it’s my respect.
“Subterraneans”. At this point, we’re deep into the ritual of CHUD. It’s the peak of misery, and goddamnit, it’s the best track yet. I could really like this album if I hadn't seen it at the top of a list, and if I was really depressed. I assume it's got some “Citizen Kane”-like claim to innovations I wouldn't appreciate, lacking scholarly gumption and life before 1981. So it sounds like black and white and men with funny hats talking quickly. So why am I reviewing it, like I have anything to add? Because I’ve already written all these words, that's why.
There follows more morose synthtwining with non-English vocalizations that move like Gregorian lines but fall like bridge-jumpers weighted down with stones and chains into the minor mires - yes, there's more than one mire in this mine. And my canary died a long time ago. So I think I’ll call it a night.
Okay, I'm not really slamming this album, just disliking it while admiring it, and saying it's stupid to call it the "best" anything. Basically, I resent the music not standing alone, which is why I made a point not to research anything, or read lyrics. That and I'm lazy. And I'm not a Bowie scholar and I'm sure there's plenty around who could school me. Didn't you know, one out of every two readers of Optical Delusions would score 80% or better on the average David Bowie trivia quiz, according to a recent Gallup poll?
Well, that was a lot of words for not much insight. Hope you were as bored reading them as I was writing them for this make-work project I felt compelled to finish. Just to prove I'm not using this album or musician as a scapegoat, I'll also attempt to review “Hunky Dory”. I hated that album at first but am coming to love it. Why do I feel out of my depth? I dunno, what do you do with the man who fell to earth?