“Sound and Vision” is without question, David Bowie’s best song. It’s everything that has been written about Low (and ”Heroes”) in 3 minutes and change. Postmodern, as the critics use it, as in all the genres it incorporates and post-modern, as the laymen use it, as in looking ahead to the future from a man who had spent the greater part of his discography looking to the past or present. And 1977 was a hopping year for electronic music, with both David Bowie albums bridging the gap between rock and electronic, with Brian Eno’s last great album, with two Iggy Pop albums (also with David Bowie’s involvement), with Kraftwerk’s best album that namechecks both David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Ashra’s New Age of Earth with one of the 5 best approximations of sun showers, Suicide’s debut elevating punk from rock to attitude, Giorgio Moroder and Jean-Marc Cerrone, etc. And the song itself is what you’ll hear when you click on the sound button next to the online dictionary’s definition of gestalt: the bass is playing funk (also the best groove on the album), Bowie is singing soul, the drum loop sounds like a sample of a drop of water hitting the stove, the descending synth scale is pure synth-pop that’s loud and proud, Bowie is playing oddball saxophone and despite all that, it still feels intrinsically rock because that’s what it is. Best moment: when Tony Visconti’s wife jumps in on the guitar riff the second time with the indelible “Do-do-do”’s that happen once but will stick with you for a lifetime.
Actually, the first side of the album is David Bowie’s finest side ever, even though David Bowie flails around looking for a hook on “What In The World” (question: what the fuck are those vocal harmonies supposed to be doing, if only directing our attention more to the fact that David Bowie is flailing) and even though “Be My Wife” feels like it goes on for longer than it actually is, because even those two songs are worth it. Enjoy the synth melody buried in the throbbing helicopter blade whirl throughout “What In The World,” with its fragmented drums pushing it along. Enjoy the piano intro of “Be My Wife,” looking back to the late 50s, which, as with David Bowie’s cover of the Rolling Stone’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together” from a few years prior, is the best part of the song. Enjoy the guitar, even though it sounds like a dry-run for what Robert Fripp would do on the title track of ”Heroes”, David Bowie’s better album that same year, as I’m sure you know.
The rest of the first side is gold: enjoy the dual assault of guitar and synth lines of “Speed of Life,” crashing in like David Bowie’s own “Like a Rolling Stone.” Enjoy the fragmented synths at the 0:32 mark of “Breaking Glass” following Bowie’s “Listen!”, in the album’s second most exciting moment after the aforementioned “do-do-do”’s. Enjoy the bleakness of “Always Crashing in the Same Car” (one of Trent Reznor’s favorite songs and presumably his favorite Bowie), with the album’s most melody after “Sound and Vision” and Bowie’s best vocal performance on the album. Speaking of which, Low is the most detached performance of one of the most theatrical singers there ever was. Enjoy the dance-ability and wide-eyed optimism of “A New Career in a New Town” on an album titled after the less glamorous side of cocaine use that’s not very danceable or optimistic: airy synths and pianos juxtaposed with crunchy guitars both glued together by triumphant harmonica.
But the album loses me after that. Of course, people who know me more intimately might point out that that’s simply because of my dislike of ambient, so I’ll rephrase: what really loses me is that it seems universally agreed upon that the ambient tracks of Low are better than that of ”Heroes”. I’m guessing that that’s because there is more happening here – ie. the background vocal chanting of “Warszawa” and “Subterraneans,” and the saxophone on the latter – and that these things invoke the orange monochrome of Low’s cover than the bleak blackness of that of ”Heroes.” But nothing here really interests me that much. The melodies aren’t as melodic as the defenders have me believe (though the first half of “Warszawa” – before the vocals come in – does fine; unsurprisingly the song with maximum Eno involvement) and there are some nice synth textures on “Art Decade” (a.k.a. “Art Decayed”) over its sleepy percussion and nice percussion textures on “Weeping Wall” to be accounted for. But it’s not nearly enough for an entire side of an album.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Low is all-in-all a good album. The third best Bowie album, if I had to rank them. The thing about it though, is I never feel like listening to the whole thing cover-to-cover. It’s not a matter that I find it too depressing; it can’t be depressing when there’s pseudo-dancing to be had in “Speed of Life” and “A New Career in a New Town,” or when the glammy guitars appear in most of the tracks on the first side. It’s that the second half doesn’t even compare to the first, and simply drags on for longer than it should. Moreover, on some tracks, David Bowie still hasn’t figured out how to work vocals onto his new palette. Don’t worry, though. He’ll figure it out. And he’ll figure it out in a couple of months’ time too.
Last thing: Beck – an artist who took a lot of lessons of detachment and cool from David Bowie – does a 9-minute and 160-person live cover of “Sound and Vision” which I’m convinced is the greatest thing Beck’s ever done, even if it is over-the-top and Beck pretends he’s a God throughout it. Check it out!