Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Heathen (2002)


1. Sunday: Masterpiece #32. A monster of an opening track laced with spooky synth and a sombre dreamlike production, 'Sunday' becomes a disturbing incantation that builds into a warm chorus-scape. It’s simply the best track on a Bowie album in years. The live arrangement a la 2004 with Earl Slick’s towering guitar solo is simply breathtaking. 10.0

2. Cactus: Delightful Pixies cover off their seminal Surfer Rosa album although Bowie doesn’t bring a lot to the table on this one. He does however play everything on this track except bass. 7.0

3. Slip Away: Gorgeously sad and nostalgic track, although very slow paced, Bowie plays the antique synth the Stylophone first time since ‘Space Oddity’. The fretless bass (an instrument I am not a huge fan) works well but the lyrics defy explication. The song dates back to the 60s about (and may have originally been called) Uncle Floyd and his puppet sidekick Oogie (sound familiar?). 8.0

4. Slow Burn: This song is about the slow destruction of the world and possesses quite the swagger. It’s a moody and bouncy number with a nice bass/sax pop combo that vaguely recalls the Pin Ups sound. Some nice guitar work from Pete Townshend (last heard on ‘Because You’re Young’) doing his best ‘Teenage Wildlife’, but Bowie’s emotive rumble dominates. 7.5

5. Afraid: This builds well through emotional intensity alone and a high-speed jolt of strumming and strings it’s a good new wave-ish rocker, particularly live. Like ‘Slip Away’ this was originally recorded for the unreleased Toy non-album (as it is a reworked older song) but reshaped, works well in this set especially with the addition of a cello. 7.0

6. I’ve Been Waiting for You: A jacked-up Neil Young cover. Bowie takes this unremarkable Neil track (off his unremarkable self-titled debut) to a new plateau, the earthiness of the original replaced by an other-worldly alienation. Ironically the Pixies covered this back in the day too. 6.5

7. I Would Be Your Slave: Magnificent string section hovering unsettlingly above a metronomic drum pattern, electronic pulses and gender-neutral lyrics, Bowie puts in a moving and heartfelt performance and bringing a confessional tone to this album highlight. 8.0

8. I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship: Covering a track from Bowie’s 60s muse The Legendary Stardust Cowboy this is fast-paced electropop featuring frenetic beats and dark swirling synths with Bowie’s amusingly detached vocals. 6.5

9. 5.15 the Angels have Gone: Underrated track, melodically exquisite if a little slight. The verse’s melody and guitar lick simply gorgeous, the misty-eyed nostalgia finds Bowie in a reflective mood not for the first time on the album, unfortunately let down by a bland-out refrain “Weeeeee never talk anymore”. Nice drums all-round. 7.5

10. Everyone Says “Hi”: A feeling of homesick melancholy cloaks this jolly little melody with a fine chorus and middle-eight that is something of a nod to the charming ‘Absolute Beginners’ (8.5) from 1985. Worthy single materiel. 8.0

11. A Better Future: A summation of an on-going internal spiritual dialogue, it’s a simple hypnotic and relatively catchy melody but the lowest point of the album. 6.0

12. Heathen (The Rays): Masterpiece #33. One of the first tracks written for the album, the ominous militaristic rhythms of the ghostly title track is quite a wonderful piece of bleak songwriting and display enormous emotional depth and quality. A welcome return to brilliant ambient menace. 10.0


VERDICT: While not a complete return to the form of the 1970s, Heathen is a huge comeback for an artist who was seemingly fading away amid an avalanche of indifference. The youthful brilliance and trend setting finesse of his early work is long gone, but in it’s place is a mature assured sound of acceptance, nonchalant charm and great songs. Out goes the heavy industrial sounds and the gratuitous guitar noodlings of Reeves Gabrels (as did the many co-write credits - Bowie was writing on his own again) and in comes a classic rocking guitar and saxophone sound, doom-laden lyrics literally threatening God himself (hence the album title?), and cool multi-layered backing vocals. Reuniting with producer Tony Visconti they have come up with a string of fascinating arrangements enhancing the timely subject matter to often moving effect. Heathen contains Bowie’s artistic leanings within a pleasing pop framework and it sparkles with hindsight unlike his past few albums which relied on the simple addition of bizarre-o sounds to flesh it out. Bowie finally formed his own record label (ISO) just prior to the release of Heathen which gave him renewed artistic freedom allowing him to write, record and release whatever he liked. This was particularly welcome after the unreleased indignity of (Virgin’s) Toy. Heathen put Bowie back on the map.

NEXT: “Never ever gonna get old”.

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