Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (turn and face the strange)
Look out you Rock 'n Rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (turn and face the strange)
Pretty soon you're gonna get a little older
Time may change me
But I can't trace time. --"Changes", David Bowie
TIME HAS INDEED changed David Bowie. The six years since the release of Hunky Dory have taken Bowie through various incarnations and musical styles. His recurrent themes of the demise of mankind, the descent of aliens from the stars, communication and travel to other worlds, have demanded by their very nature new kinds of expression. As progressing years brought sweeping advances in the realm of electronic sound, Bowie's musical scope expanded. The suspension of disbelief required by his futuristic songs was facilitated by the surprise element of sounds unfamiliar to our ears. Bowie's blend of rock and myths bridged the gap beautifully, and contributed to the originality of his sound.
Bowie's most recent album, Low, reflects the technological changes that time has brought to his music; it has had so radical an effect that the album can hardly be classified as rock. Only 5 of the 11 tracks qualify as songs. Bowie has shifted gears from singing to composing, and in his audio playpen of the latest electronic gadgets he has formulated an album of, not rock ballads, but cosmic tone poems. Unlike his earlier albums, the focus in Low is on environment rather than melody, on synthesized effects rather than traditional rock arrangements. The recording is impressive: textures are clear and sharply defined, bass tones are rich and highs are scintillating. Sound loses itself in the infinity of space. A leap of imagination and one could be transported past the Pleiades, meditating on some barren asteroid and watching the comets streak by. The synthetic mode lends itself, as Bowie has proven in the past, to evoking the outer space reality in which much of his music dwells. Low is an unexpected break toward an entirely new form of rock.
The influence of Eno is immediately obvious. The crown prince of electronic rock plays on 7 of the 11 tracks, and collaborates with Bowie on the most successful of the instrumental pieces, "Warszawa." Using piano, mini-Moog, Chamberlain and E.M.I. (don't even ask), Eno creates a work of majesty and spirituality. Medieval in feeling, with a bass drone borrowed from Russian liturgy, it is punctuated by Bowie's decent imitation of the sharp, nasal song style of Eastern Europe. You have the sense of sunlight glowing through the windows of a cathedral; gloomy, but at the same time gloriously transcendant and essentially redemptive.
IT IS THIS quality for which Bowie unsuccessfully strives in the other instrumental tracks of the album. The sustained and simple melody that succeed in "Warszawa" only make the other compositions simplistic and monotonous. Though they vary in the instruments used and in the general tone of each, none of the others have the thrust or commitment that could take them beyond the level of experimentation. Bowie hauls in a cartload of interesting effects--but his electronic toys weigh him down. He is too reliant on the variety of synthesized sounds he can achieve, and neglects the compositional structure necessary to unite their disparate elements. The tunes lack definition and resolution; once the novelty wears off, they become tedious. Bowie's surrealism overwhelms you. You can sense important messages but only the dreamer can unscramble them. The few solos by traditional instruments, the guitar and sax, are flaccid and indefinite.
You might expect the songs on the album to promise a lighter hand, a more cohesive structure, or at least a more familiar form. After all, something has to sell the record. The themes are typically Bowie: alienation, isolation, the longing for and the fear of communication. Naturally, the synthetics he has adopted permeate the songs. Although they're sometimes stilted in form, the songs are less pretentious than the instrumentals and far easier to tolerate.
"What in the World," a love song, features liquid blips and electronically muted drums. It also boasts the hoarse background vocals of Iggy Pop, Bowie's personal Panic from Detroit. (Iggy, of Iggy and the Stooges, is famed on the punk-rock circuit for a favorite performance stunt: he would smash bottles on stage and fling himself upon them, frequently being hospitalized after gigs. Perhaps this explains the song about "Breaking Glass.") Despite the efforts of Iggy, Eno and company, "What in the World" is repetitive and uninteresting.
BY CONTRAST, "Sound and Vision" is punctuated by a sizzle reminiscent of Bowie's disco years. Bass line, mellotron and the choral vocals are all classic components of a disco arrangement, though the sounds and inspirations seem to originate elsewhere. Bowie's mellow but beautifully articulated baritone contrasts with his high sharp "rock" voice. The cut has brief moments when the musical concept seems to jell, but ultimately there is little sense of build or progression.
The best song on the album is probably "Be My Wife," the plea of a Byronic wanderer exhausted and alienated by the world. The lyrics are simple and sincere; the search for security strikes a universal chord in a way that the instrumentals try in vain to do. The piano and guitar dominate the score, and a tighter structure gives the song more power and coherence than the others. However, the tune's energy is undercut by a lackluster guitar solo on the fade-out.
Flaws like these, combined with Bowie's apparent inexperience with his exotic fuseboxes, relegate Low to the category of "interesting experiment." They don't seem in character; did the man who fell to earth land on his head? When the creator of Ziggy Stardust begins to sound like Star Trek soundtracks, you can't help wondering. "Changes" is right: rock 'n rollers have gotten older, and they cannot expect him to retrace old footsteps. But in this redefinition of his idiom, David Bowie has a long way to travel.