Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Heathen by David Bowie (2002)

Not many artists have experienced such a commercial and critical nosedive as David Bowie. From a near-infallible and extremely prolific output in the 1970s, culminating in 1983’s lap of honour Let’s Dance, its follow-ups Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) are such unspeakable duds that they deserve to remain sealed. In fact, these two albums are the most readily available from Bowie’s back-catalogue in second hand vinyl stores, probably precisely for this reason. Feeling the need for a reinvention, his brief “Tin Machine” alt-rock phase was brave, but felt incredibly forced, screamed “midlife crisis” and remains a textbook case of ill-fitting makeovers. In the 1990s, flirtations with industrial music and what was then called “Jungle” saw a goateed Bowie playing catch-up with “the kids” and their music.

Bowie the Earthling, circa 1997.

Heathen then, represents a welcome “reboot” of the singer’s career. The cover is a hint of the contents; businesslike, a bit grim, and cool. Tellingly, the baggy white outfit of 1999’s ‘Hours…’ is traded in for a smart suit. Reunited with Tony Visconti, producer of Bowie’s biggest 1970s albums, the sound and production alone is a welcome return to the latter part of that decade, with some tasteful 21st century flourishes (the odd drum loop, some drum and bass influences). The production is remarkably lithe, a very clear mix bringing out the gracefully ageing Bowie on top of his fantastic backing band (big session names, Visconti himself and the essential Carlos Alomar). The energy is up throughout the album, refusing to bog down like the 1980s albums, and strongly indebted to the state of alternative rock at the turn of the century. Some songs are accompanied by a tasteful string quartet.

Some tracks immediately leap out at the listener. “I Would Be Your Slave” is built around a soft drum and bass loop, with the “Scorchio Quartet” fleshing out the body of the accompaniment. Here, Bowie is in fine form, effortlessly echoing his performance of “Wild is the Wind” some 25 years previously. “Cactus” is a Pixies cover, adding punch to a previously weedy song, possibly rocking harder than any other song since Bowie’s glam days. “Slip Away” is a no-punches-pulled ballad with a soaring chorus. Channelling the spirit of the Berlin Trilogy (1977-79) most obviously is the bouncing “Slow Burn”. Its bass-line is obviously indebted to “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger (1979), while the backing vocals are clearly in the style of “Sons of the Silent Age” from “Heroes” (1977). At least Bowie refers to what are arguably his strongest albums, with all of Heathen possessing the same edgy cool that the Berlin Trilogy exudes. One of the most remarkable tracks, if only for its frantic energy and remarkable arrangement is the cover of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s “Took A Trip on a Gemini Spaceship”. Doffing its cap to Bowie’s early 1970’s “space alien” phase (Ziggy Stardust) theremins glide over a drum and bass song with vocals that sound almost like a parody. It must nevertheless be congratulated for the unashamed enthousiasm with which the song is tackled.

Bowie a few years later, as elder statesman and fashion icon

Truthfully, the album does not maintain the quality of the aforementioned highlights throughout its running time; the last few songs are not entirely memorable. “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” features a dandy Bowie straight off of Hunky Dory (1971), and the title track provides a fitting end. The album contains no fewer than three covers. Nevertheless, Heathen represents a rebirth, albeit a short one. It was followed one year later by the more patchy “Reality”, and since then, no new material has come from “the actor”. Heathen finds him taking stock of his qualities, cashing in his chips as new generations of listeners and critics were exploring his back catalogue. His pioneering work acknowledged, he could now be revered as a well-dressed elder statesman, fashion icon and kooky NYC neighbour of Moby. Rather than racing to keep up with new developments, as in the 1980s and 1990s, Heathen finds Bowie at ease with his age, status, and unafraid of lingering on the sidelines, where he has always been at his best.