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David Bowie - Heathen Print E-mail
Tuesday, 11 June 2002
ImageISO/Sony Music
performance 8
sound 8
released 2002

David Bowie must most certainly be mulling over what becomes a former shock-rocker best these days. Madonna has learned that sex doesn’t sell as well during middle age and, similarly, nobody’s ever going to fall for our man Bowie as a graying visitor from outer space. As with actors, musicians must be believable in the roles they play. With Heathen, which can best described as a mildly creative effort, Bowie draws upon more than a few notable signposts along the road map of his long and storied career, and ends up with a worthy - if not truly great – project.
Bowie’s career can be divided into a few major stylistic divisions -- many of which are referenced on this disc. One such landmark is associated with the ‘70s work he did with Brian Eno. This era is strongly alluded to in “5:15 The Angels Have Gone.” It’s a tune that rides over a trickling repeated electric guitar figure, matched to hesitantly pounded drums. In it, Bowie sings about boredom in the big city with staccato phrases. It’s framed in a synth wash that is more than a little reminiscent of Brian Eno’s production touches for Bowie’s classics, most notably “Low,” but this time out Bowie exudes a whole lot more warmth. “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” also features plenty of synthesizers, only here they serve to imitate the kinds of strings associated primarily with Burt Bacharach/Hal David ballads of the ‘60s. The song is a sweet and thoughtful look at how one’s life changes dramatically once a dear friend moves away. It also explores that endless longing to bring back the good old days again.

If your Bowie fixation dates all the way back to his days with guitar whiz Mick Ronson, you’ll be pleased by at least a few of these new tunes. “Slow Burn” features guitar help from Pete Townshend, but you might never guess this at first listen. This is because the dirty sound of his ax is closer to Neil Young’s garage-y excursions than to the Who’s clipped shreds of amplified vibe. This song also retains an odd arrangement, in that Bowie ’s eerie singing is placed over a rock track that sits side by side with a subtly honking soul horn section. Intentionally or not, it brings back the ghost of Bowie’s “Young Americans” days. At the end of the track, Bowie hits high notes seemingly too pure and beautiful for a man his age. A less successful example of Bowie’s rocking side, however, is “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” which is no more than a plodding rocker that also features the project’s other guest guitarist, Nirvana/Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. It begins promisingly, but reaches a dead end quickly because we don’t learn very much about this anxiously awaited love interest. Its musical track also burns out quickly, without ever building any real momentum.

If you’re in the mood for a game of spot-the-“China Girl”-era Bowie references, take a good listen to “Better Future,” as it borrows a rhythm track seemingly straight out of his hit “Modern Love.” The song itself acts as a cry for better days. Its keyboard counter-melody, however, sounds almost exactly like the “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” hook. Strange melodic/rhythmic bedfellows, indeed.

In the end, Heathen is neither sinfully good nor an artistic sin. But through it, Bowie has allowed his past to help inform his future. So somebody please let Ground Control know that Major Tom is still alive and well.

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