Rolling Stone APRIL 21, 1977 - by John Milward


David Bowie has always been concerned with masks. The most memorable image from The Man Who Fell To Earth, Roeg's film from which this album cover has been chosen, showed Bowie peeling off the synthetic earth-face which served as his disguise. His music also has been defined by its various personas; he has moved from Dylan to Lou Reed and from The Stones to androgynous funk with calculated and sometimes inspired dexterity.

On Low, Bowie meets Eno, and the result might have been entitled Another Green Ziggy. Eno, who co-wrote only one tune with Bowie but plays throughout, is also a manipulator of masks, but his image as an avant-garde dabbler has always been more enigmatic than Bowie's. Both of them create with the sleight of hand of a shell-game swindler, but it's much easier to catch Bowie in the act.

Side one, where Bowie works within more conventional rock trappings, is superior to side two's experiments simply because a band forces discipline into Bowie's writing and performance. Sandwiched between a pair of spacey instrumentals are five brief but well-defined pop songs combining quirky lyrics and a band driven by sharply cracking drums and rifting guitars. At their best, the songs are funny - only a stoneface could resist smiling when hearing Bowie's hurdy-gurdy voice sing "You're such a wonderful person, but you got problems" in Breaking Glass - and the band's squeaky performances match the lyrical playfulness.

When Bowie stretches out on side two, however, his mask begins to slip. The four pieces strain to evoke the spacey planes of modern electronic music where the compositions themselves become secondary to the mood they evoke. And while Bowie hits celestial pay dirt on one of the pieces - Weeping Wall - he more often calls attention to his own dabbling. Such technosheen music requires a detached master to hold the reins, and Bowie, the cracked actor, is just too much of a ham. The problem is most glaring when his Latin-mass voices are blended into the lunar mix with the subtlety of ripe blue cheese.

Bowie lacks the self-assured humour to pull off his avant-garde aspirations. His role playing long ago blew his detached mystique. Low serves as a moderately interesting conduit through which a wider audience will be exposed to Bowie's latest heroes, and in this sense is an interesting addition to his recorded catalog. More importantly, Low fulfills another of Bowie's requirements - it again washes clean his audience's expectations and allows him to contemplate his next mask.