David Bowie’s 2013 LP, The Next Day received near-unanimous praise because of an unexpected return from a seemingly indefinite hiatus. It sort of sucked. Appropriately, then, I’ll turn my attention to Heathen since it was met with a similar reaction; everything David Bowie had done between 1980 and 2002 was so subpar that Heathen might as well have been his return to music after a period of inactivity.
Tony Visconti, responsible for producing everybody’s favorite David Bowie albums (1970 – 1980) and not responsible for producing no one’s favorite David Bowie albums (1983 – 1999), is back to help out with Heathen. That’s perhaps why Heathen succeeds – David Bowie owes half his career to people not named David Bowie, of course (ie. Mark Ronson, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp) – Visconti injects life into Heathen, especially odd considering Visconti hasn’t done anything worthwhile of note since last he appeared on a Bowie album, 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (uncoincidentally, the last thing of note by David Bowie as well). Unlike The Next Day, Heathen succeeds because Visconti does not pretend that nothing has happened since the 70s and now, but not in the way that the industrial rock bombast of 1.Outside tried to place David Bowie amongst contemporaries Trent Reznor (you’re only as old as the people you hang out with. For example, despite the album being guitar-heavy as you would expect a Bowie album to be, opener “Sunday” is an tundra of electronic blips and bloops, while David Bowie emulates Scott Walker as best he can in the statement, “Nothing has changed” in the chorus that’s sandwiched by the infinitely greater truth, “Everything has changed.”
Unfortunately, the lyrics of “Sunday” and elsewhere (ie. “For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end”; “I demand a better future”) have allowed critics to link Heathen as an album inspired by 9/11, forcing Bowie to publicly state that most of songs here were written beforehand for Toy, an album that never came to be. For example, in Dave Thompson (who has probably written a biography about at least one of your favorite artists), writes in Hallo Spaceboy: the Rebirth of David Bowie, “Of all the interpretations that were brought to bear upon Heathen […], the shroud of 9/11 was, naturally, one of the most pronounced. An album of such heavy introspection could not escape notice, and though Bowie continued to confirm that the entire album was written beforehand, that he had no intention of the album reflecting the events of that day, there was no escaping the shade of the disaster that clung to the album.” How? If Bowie himself stated that this has nothing to do with 9/11, how does the shade of 9/11 “cling” to the album? Truthfully, David Bowie’s best works have always had an air of anxiety to them, but I can’t ascribe the impending apocalypse of the entirety of Ziggy Stardust or Diamond Days, parts of Aladdin Sane, or the frostbitten world explored in Low or ”Heroes” to 9/11, because they were written way before it. Now, especially if you’re superstitious, it’s not too farfetched that “foresight” can be added to David Bowie’s impressively long list of skills, but if he knew about 9/11 before it actually happened, then he’s an asshole for not trying to stop it.
Which means we ought to take Heathen only the record it is, rather than one that others want it to have been. On various songs in his a-day like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” “”Heroes,”” and “It’s No Game (Part 1),” David Bowie demonstrated that he could easily match the primal energy of Frank Black. But here, he’s fifty-five years old and his vocal range and power have basically been slashed in half, so he picks a relatively easy Pixies song to cover and does a better-than-expected job of it. Sure, there’s also the fact that Kim deal isn’t here to help the bring the song out as she did on the original, but various backing vocals fill the void. The most puzzling moment on the song (and the album) is at the 1:30 mark, when Bowie embodies a full cheerleading squad and shouts out the letters of his name, “D! A! V! I! D!”, an eyebrow-raising section of utter what-the-fuckery. Afterwards, the album goes into a slump of mediocrity that it won’t come out of until its second half.
RollingStone’s David Fricke will call the needlessly long “Slip Away” a reinvention of “Life on Mars?” but that comparison seems baseless; in an imaginary Venn diagram where the primary circles represent either song, absolutely nothing could be placed in the overlapping region. Fricke bringing “”Heroes”” to describe “Slow Burn” is much more apt, but that’s only because there was a clear conscious attempt to recreate it, though unfortunately Pete Townsend (who has previously worked with David Bowie and Tony Visconti on Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)) is no Robert Fripp. Actually, other King Crimson member, Tony Levin, single-handedly propels the track with his bassline, but he’s unfortunately ignored in that review because of the appearance of a higher-profile guest. Elsewhere, Neil Young cover, “I’ve Been Waiting For You” is nothing more than a solid rock track.
Thankfully, the second half of the album easily outshines the first. The alien bass tones “I Would Be Your Slave” and the drum rhythm that propels third cover, “I Took A Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” both join “Sunday” in reminding us that this is a 2002 album, even if David Bowie is looking backwards elsewhere on the album (for example, he follows these tracks with “5:15 The Angels Have Gone,” an obvious reference to Who’s Quadrophenia). Meanwhile, both “Everybody Says ‘Hi’” and “A Better Future” that follow feature some of the prominent melodies on the album. The former is probably the last Bowie will ever attempt to move his voice that much, with an ending that revolves around a mantra-line-mantra-line setup that instantly recalls “Five Years” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (but sadly, without either’s power, but still good), while the latter features a dancing, descending keyboard line to watch out for.
Really, though, while the music of Heathen is definitely something to write home about, you have to remember that the average musician seems to have the shelf life of models. Wrinkles start appearing in their voice and worse, their creative wells. With Heathen, Bowie gives us the best album since Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), an album that’s a head above the least impressive albums he made in the 70’s that everyone forgets about. And he was fifty-five years old when the album was released. Remember that.