In 2001 David Bowie released what is without doubt the oddest compilation of his career. Which is saying something, there having been over 40 collections of his music across five decades. This one was called All Saints, with the subtitle telling you exactly what you were getting: Collected Instrumentals 1977 – 1999.
The story goes that the original version of this collection was assembled by the artist as a limited edition yuletide gift for his thousand closest friends, way back in 1993. By the time lesser mortals were invited to the Christmas party eight years later, the track listing had been tweaked somewhat, but it remains accurately described by the title. A gathering of Bowie’s non-songs, emphasising the two key albums of his seventies “Berlin” period, Low and “Heroes” which provide a dominant nine tracks of the sixteen on the disc.
Things open energetically, with the upbeat “A new career in a new town” from Low, a piece rather at odds with the generally ethereal and often mysterious tone of many of these compositions. The ambient sound explorations are not so surprising when it is noted that almost half the album’s tracks are collaborations with Brian Eno, whose input into Bowie’s Berlin albums is well-known. In fact it would be far from unreasonable to describe this collection as “A new collaborator and a new sound”, so significant was Eno’s input into Bowie’s change of direction in late 1976.
It is a cleverly assembled album. After the stomping opening, the intensity —or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, the density— drops a little with “V-2 Schneider”, Bowie’s acknowledgement of Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider and one of the catchiest instrumentals you’ll encounter, perhaps because it is not entirely devoid of voices. Next is the first Bowie/Eno collaboration, the previously unreleased “Abdulmajid” suitably exotic and eastern-tinged. After another selection from Low’s more-or-less instrumental second side (“Weeping wall”), another of the new pieces arrives. The track that gives the album its title, “All Saints” has subterranean beats and an ominous rather than saintly feel; it is very Eno indeed, sounding rather like a high-quality outtake from that artist’s classic Another Green World. Similarly, “Crystal Japan” has a delicate, sketch-like quality that hints rather than reveals. Though very enjoyable, it does sound under-developed, almost incomplete.
Even for loyal Bowie fans, there are albums that might have slipped through the net. For this long-term David devotee, his 90s soundtrack album for the British television miniseries The Buddha of Suburbia is one of those, so it is pleasing to have two pieces included on All Saints.
Tacked on the end of the album is its longest piece, a selection from the Philip Glass “Low” Symphony (1993). This album consists of the contemporary composer’s developments and extrapolations of two of the instrumental pieces from Low plus an unreleased piece from the Low sessions, “Some are”. Choosing the lesser known piece of Glass/Bowie was a thoughtful and engaging decision. The piece is also engaging and thoughtful: it certainly sounds like Glass, but with something different. It made me want to hear the rest of the Glass symphony… more on that later.
So, reaching the end of All Saints, the question nags away… who is this album for? Fans will have much of this material, especially the essential Bowie albums Low and “Heroes”, which, to be honest, deserve a place in any self-respecting rock collection anyway. As some editions of Mr Bowie’s seemingly endless catalogue re-packaging have previously included the rarities, committed fans might well have pretty much everything here.
Is it only, then, a curio for completists? Or a clever compilation that sheds crepuscular light through new windows? Perhaps it is simply an atmospheric instrumental album to spin as the night drifts towards somnolence and the red wine bottle reveals its bitter sediment. Maybe we shouldn’t overthink it; All Saints is an interesting package highlighting something of the diversity and creativity of a wonderfully restless and accomplished artist. We could just accept the gift. After all, it was a Christmas present.
Having heard and enjoyed the Philip Glass re-composition “Some are” at the end of All Saints, I was on the lookout for the whole “Low” Symphony. It duly arrived and demanded inclusion here.
The first thing to note is that “Low” Symphony is not in any way an orchestral arrangement of a rock album. In his liner notes, Philip Glass describes noticing a number of songs on the 1977 Bowie/Eno collaboration “used techniques which were similar to procedures used by composers working in new and experimental music”. He goes on:
I’ve taken themes from three of the instrumentals on the record and, combining them with material of my own, have used them as the basis of three movements of the Symphony.
The composer’s decision to “treat the themes very much as if they were my own” results in music that has a genuine sense of collaboration: neither camp could have produced this work on their own and the disc has the potential to delight fans of both Bowie (and Eno) and Philip Glass.
“Subterraneans” is the final track on Low, and includes both saxophone and wordless vocals from Bowie. Here, in the symphonic version, the piece opens gently, almost tentatively, setting up an atmosphere that could be described as pastoral. Horns (and later strings) hint at the saxophone part, while the change-up of pace at the half-way point may immediately makes one think of film music, yet lifts the energy well above ground level. Instead of the strangled passion of Bowie’s vocalising, Glass opts for layering of orchestral voices; it’s terrific.
“Warszawa” (Bowie/Eno) is the opening piece on the second side of Low. There is an eastern European feel in the melody and especially in the vocals at the end. Vocals? Sure. My Japanese CD re-issue reproduces the lyrics.
This is my favourite movement of the “Low” Symphony. Although there is no singing, Glass has taken the musical themes and the atmosphere of the original and explored them in his inimitable style. The result is engrossing, dramatic, symphonic and beautiful in a way that somehow combines potency with delicacy.
Overall, the “Low” Symphony is a worthy addition to both Bowie and Glass collections.
Thanks to BB for the gift of the “Low” Symphony.
A version of the All Saints section of this post first appeared at the blog Sit Down / Listen Up.