Between addiction and sobriety, between indulgence and discipline, David Bowie traveledl to Berlin as a way of imposing change upon himself. It is fitting that the album, then, contains a famous stylistic split. The pop songs of the first half are frantic, bubbly, and somehow glamorously awkward; like Talking Heads with a rakish, spaced-out sex appeal. The second half, on the other hand, is all moody atmosphere: stasis instead of movement, intensity instead of springiness. It’s hard to imagine a more beloved album which more flamboyantly violates the music nerd’s ideal of an album with a “consistent sound.” The division of the record has an alienating sharpness, lending it a mildly inhuman, binary texture.
What’s still surprising about the album, then, is how–with close attention–each song has its own personality and identity, standing apart as a unique and futuristic confection, united with but not blending into the other entrants on its respective side. No song on the album, for instance, sounds much like the opening instrumental, “Speed of Life,” with its adventurous vibe of both chaotic mystery and reassuring, space-age lightness.
“Breaking Glass” crashes back to earth with a squawking, animal lead guitar line and driven, funky groove. The R&B influences that Bowie had convincingly mastered on his previous releases lend a bottom-energy to the song’s mad-scientific art-punk construction, giving it more credibility as a full work than its tantalizingly short runtime might suggest. “What in the World” takes the opposite tack: an almost purely bubbling abstraction–like someone in a spiky amphetamine cloud, trying to connect with an external reality he can only barely glance at–it gets across its own refractory headspace through repetition and shambling persistence.
Arguably the most successful track is “Sound and Vision,” which justifies its oddball elements (such as a one-off saxophone riff and shifting vocal styles) through a complete conviction in the naturalness of its own, idiosyncratic (rather than radio-mandated) brand of balanced accessibility. Meanwhile, “Be My Wife” lets its idiosyncrasies hang out in an attitude of likeable, self-parodying extravagance which is in keeping with the blunt straightforwardness of its anti-hook title. But it’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car” which connects the willful and charming anxiety of Low’s first side with the meditative vistas of its second half. Brooding and slinky but gauzily antisocial, the song is dense and inward-looking, with Bowie finally discovering the core neurotic pattern unifying his usual kaleidoscopic multiplicity into an unwelcome “sameness.”
The exploratory second side is less immediate than the art-pop song fragments of the first, but consistently rewards closer attention. Like most instrumental (or nearly instrumental) pieces, the names of the tracks work together with the music to suggest just the right imagery for a given listening experience–something worth pointing out in an age of disposable music listening, where it may be easy to not give the titles due consideration.
“A New Career in a New Town” creates a convincing sense of how Bowie might have experienced his move to Berlin as a kind of bittersweet shift into new habits of working. Along with its spiritual companion, “Art Decade,” these tracks contain metallic, industrial timbres imbued with a resolute, monk-like melancholy. Where the former carries a cautiously subdued naivete and optimism, the latter has found a home in its self-consciously new surroundings, looking at them from the perspective of creative, wizardly incubation rather than adventure-promising mystery. Distinct emotional states and place-based surfaces continue to interact on “Weeping Wall,” its sense of charging endlessness frosted with unheard histories of lamentation.
But at its best, Low’s pieces start in local mood music before sinking down into something that feels more primordial. “Warszawa,” one of the great highlights in Bowie’s career, has the intense, monolithic grandiosity of a Mark Rothko masterpiece. Both futuristic and ancient, the track practically vibrates and hums ceremonial power into the listener’s ears and body, unsticking us in both time and location. On this, and the final track, “Subterraneans,” Bowie fully embraces his most radical vocal stylings yet: a past life regression into a kind of overlord figure, breathing life into new creations, reminding us how utterly strange Bowie’s voice is when it’s not naturalized by deceptively familiar pop trappings. The slow, mournful chant of “Share bride failing star,” evoking Cold War collapse and trauma, is at least as elegiac and mortally aware as anything on his similarly funereal, similarly cosmic final outing, Blackstar. Though Bowie is always experiencing with gloriously different surface postures, in his best works his sense of drama, as well as profound capacity for feeling, ensure that we always walk away having confronted the most powerfully fitting final note.