Friday, 1 May 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 4

And so the Berlin trilogy is upon us...

Low (1977)

Blaming Los Angeles for his descent into a cocaine-fuelled hell, Bowie upped-sticks and moved to Berlin where he teamed up with Brian Eno. The resulting collaboration was to prove one of the most fruitful of Bowie's career, and one of his most critically acclaimed.

From the opening strains of Speed Of Life, it was clear this was yet another new Bowie sound. However, it seemed remarkably upbeat considering the pain Bowie later revealed he was going through at the time whilst trying to kick his drug addiction. The songs on side one don't all sound fully-formed. Breaking Glass in fact was less than two-minutes in length, though in subsequent live performances it reached a more conventional three and a half minutes (as heard on 'Stage', the following year's live album).

Sound And Vision, despite becoming one of Bowie's best loved and most recognisable tracks, is also rather curious. It started life as an instrumental, then vocals were added, then vocals were taken out, leaving an instrumental intro of half the song's total length. It was as if Bowie had taken the decision to lay low (hence the album title?), at least vocally, and let some of his other creative juices run free.

To this day, I have mixed feelings about 'Low'. It may have proved to be incredibly influential, but it sounds badly dated to these ears. Side two would have made a decent soundtrack to some post-apocalyptic drama series in the early 1980s perhaps, but listening to it now is not something I yearn to do very often; these tracks are hardly growers. Also, bear in mind I wasn't even 6 when 'Low' came out, so by the time I did hear it, music had moved on considerably. It does have its highlights; aside from Sound And Vision, A New Career In A New Town is a standout and closes the upbeat nature of side one in much the same way as it started. But side two is not really my bag, and that's all I can say really.

6.5 / 10



"Heroes" (1977)

Bowie's Cold War album was strangely optimistic and upbeat, in stark contrast to the dark, melancholic nature of much of 'Low'. The fact that "Heroes" hit the shelves just six months after its predecessor shows what a productive period it was for Bowie at a very difficult time in his life. His partnership with Brian Eno was reaping dividends though, and "Heroes" is the result of two great, adventurous musical minds at the peak of their powers.

"Heroes" is the best of the three Berlin records, and one of the top 5 of Bowie's entire career. It gets off to a rip-roaring start with Beauty And The Beast, Joe The Lion and the remarkable title track. In fact it barely lets up throughout side one, a relief from the murky and haunting sounds that graced 'Low'. While these songs may well have been recorded during the same sessions, it's clear there is a different mood here and it's that which sets "Heroes" apart from its companions. Eno's production is often warm and close - Sons Of The Silent Age sounds like it was recorded in the cupboard under your stairs - though there are distant and eerie elements in there too.

Side two adopted a similar approach to the second side of 'Low', consisting largely of atmospheric instrumentals. While V2-Schneider kept the spirit of side one up to a degree, the more ominous and atmospheric moods of Sense Of Doubt and Neuköln continued the soundscape experimentation the Berlin trilogy became largely remembered for, though they do begin to grate. Fortunately, "Heroes" ends on an upbeat note. While The Secret Life Of Arabia may never be regarded as one of Bowie's all-time career highlights, it did at least provide some respite from the ponderousness of the instrumentals.

"Heroes" was recorded yards from the Berlin Wall, with East German guards keeping watch from their side. It was also the work of Bowie emerging from some of his darkest days. Despite the unpromising backdrop, "Heroes" was triumphant.

8.3 / 10


Lodger (1979)

The Bowie-Eno partnership was petering out by the time 'Lodger' came around. The experimental techniques that dominated the previous two records in the trilogy were also on the wane, though neither of these things make 'Lodger' an uninteresting record. The one thing that lets it down more than anything else is its lack of real focus; it just doesn't gel as an album.

Nevertheless, there are some terrific songs here. Fantastic Voyage is a wonderful ballad and hinted at yet another future direction, though oddly it was never played live until 2003. It was also one of the most straightforward tracks we'd got from Bowie for a few years. Red Sails is a whole heap of fun and could be said to hark back to the glam era save for the guitar sounds. Speaking of which, Boys Keep Swinging really could have graced the Ziggy/'Aladdin Sane' era (though I think of Roxy Music when I hear it), while DJ wouldn't have sounded out of place on 'Diamond Dogs'.

But there was still some adventurousness and ambition. African Night Flight was an exotic journey of tribal sounds and a stream-of-consciousness that was a brave move even for Bowie. Yassassin is full of Eastern promise with its Turkish influences, while Move On is essentially All The Young Dudes backwards! Also of interest is the fact that Boys Keep Swinging and Fantastic Voyage - both sides of the album's first single - are actually pretty much the same song, featuring identical chord sequences.

'Lodger' for me is never less than fascinating, and when taken as a collection of individual songs it rates pretty highly in his catalogue. But the disparate nature of its contents make it difficult to comprehend as a whole. It also sounds like Bowie was ready to move on to pastures new. Although he would team up with Eno again more than a decade and a half later, 'Lodger' was an indication that the partnership was over for now. The following year, Bowie's newest creation would be revealed and a revival of enormous commercial success would ensue...

7.5 / 10



  1. The Berlin years were Bowie's most experimental years. All albums were different in itself. Heroes might be the most successful one but I was more into 'Low' and 'Lodger'. I used to play 'Low' the recent days in the later evening and I felt really relaxed with it.
    Btw. Nick Lowe released an EP and named it 'Bowi'. He told that this was a reaction because Bowie has written his name wrong.

  2. Lodger always seems to get lost whenever Bowie lps are mentioned which is a shame as it is a cracking lp. Again feel you are spot on - only quibble is I'd score Low higher - it has dated a bit (more so than side 2 of heroes)but I can still lose myself in side 2

  3. Listening to Lodger for the first time in ages!

  4. FORW is right, 'Lodger' does get a little forgotten at times. It's a bit of a hidden gem in Bowie's 1970's output.

  5. Yep, gotta go with the peanut gallery. I would have Low a little bit higher, but I really enjoyed your takes, Robster. This is such a fascinating period.