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David Bowie - Heroes CD (album) cover


David Bowie


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4.04 | 393 ratings

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5 stars It took me about two listens to decide that this was going to be my favorite Bowie album for the rest of time. This is the second entry in Bowie's late-70's collaboration with Brian Eno, and for whatever it may have in common with Low and for whatever may be an advancement in the production and general approach, the biggest thing that sets this album apart from Low for me is that it actually has classics. Whereas Low simmered at a solidly very good level without contributing (in my opinion) a single all-time great Bowie track, this album maintains the same baseline quality at worst while throwing out peaks repeatedly. Eno and Bowie brought out the best in each other with this album, and when the contributions of Robert Fripp (in his first recording appearance since he'd temporarily decided to abandon the music industry and find life meaning in The Fourth Way, a system of spiritual thought taught by a man named Gurdjieff) are accounted for, it's pretty much impossible for me not to love this album more than anything else with Bowie's name on it.

As with Low, this is an album that sounds to me like the color scheme of the album cover. Yup, if you can possibly understand the idea of sounds having color associated with them, then you should know that while the majority of Low sounds like orange and brown and various light human skin tones to me, "Heroes" is all about striking, powerful mixes of black, white and grey to me. This probably wouldn't sound like a compliment to many people, since it would seem that color would indicate a more vibrant and lively approach than would lack of it. For me, though, the concept works in the album's favor not only because of how the instrumental textures paint images in my mind (the entire album sounds like a classy stylized black-and-white Japanese-style cartoon to me), but because stripping away color works as a strong metaphor for stripping away all of the various trappings that served to mask David's humanity in so much of his career. Even in the liner notes, where there is some color in the images shown of David, the addition of color is very soft and muted, only meant to enhance and emphasize what's already there rather than replace it with a big song and dance, so to speak. Even in many of the rather obscure and abstract portions of the album, I can feel David's soul in the music (though to be fair, much of that might also be Eno's soul; the division between the two here is definitely not cut and dried on this album), and David's soul is definitely not something heard on a regular basis.

As on Low, the album is roughly distributed with the "normal" material on the first side and the "difficult" material on the second side, though as on Low this description isn't exact; the first side of Low wasn't exactly filled with "normal" songs (not to mention the presence of two instrumentals on that side), while the second side here ends with a track that could hardly be dismissed as "difficult." Still, while the two albums aren't exactly clones of each other, there is enough similarity in the general shape of the respective albums that it's easy to justify comparisons between the two. In this spirit, I have no problem saying the following: both the "normal" material on "Heroes" and the "difficult" material on "Heroes" are significantly superior to their respective counterparts on Low, and Low wasn't really a slouch in either. Of the six conventional songs on the album, only "Sons of the Silent Age" is even close to "average," and I still enjoy it quite a bit. The music in the verses isn't especially interesting, but the decision to make the secondary melody/chorus section such an over-the-top self-parody of Bowie's 1975 plastic soul era makes me laugh inside every time I think about it. "Blackout" and the closer, "The Secret Life of Arabia," are often overlooked as well, but they really shouldn't be; the former has a fascinating combination of driving beat, ugly guitar/synth squeals and frantic vocals that makes it unforgettable, and the latter (co-written with Carlos Alomar) is such a funny bit of pseudo-exotic disco (coming out of the final moments of the "serious" portion of the album, no less) that it's impossible for me to dislike it even remotely. It's nice to have a track like this, in this spot, where Bowie messing with his listeners seems less like him trying to latch onto some contemporary gimmick and seems more like him playing a genuinely funny gag on their expectations. It's nothing fantastic, but I couldn't imagine the album ending without it.

The other three "normal" songs are ones that seemingly most people enjoy, not surprisingly. Among the world of tracks that one can theoretically dance to, "Beauty and the Beast" has to be one of the ugliest and least pleasant, and I mean that in a very nice way. Everything about the song exudes sheer power, from the opening epic buildup, to the pounding beat (if this isn't proto-techno I don't know what is), to the jarring vocals (both from Bowie and from what I can only assume are female backing vocalists, who make the song bear an unmistakable krautrock influence), to the unpleasant yet irresistable guitar playing from Fripp, to the hilarious lyrics. Years ago, when I put together a 1-CD compilation of material from Eno's solo projects and albums where he'd made significant contributions, this seemed like the only logical choice for an opener, and I still can't think of a better one. Meanwhile, the following "Joe the Lion" stakes its claim as a peak within about five seconds, thanks to Fripp bringing out a MONSTROUS guitar tone for a MONSTROUS guitar line, but the song would still be great even without that portion. Fripp's guitar playing in the rest of the track is just as interesting (if not as immediately striking) as in the opening, and the alternation between Bowie's screamy vocal approach in the verses and the way he sings the "By God it's Monday, slither down the greasy pipe ..." is something I could just listen to over and over without getting tired. Yup, for a mere 3:05, "Joe the Lion" packs a mighty punch.

The big classic of the album, though, pretty much has to be the title track. I can see where one might want to dismiss it; it's gotten an obscene amount of exposure over the years, and it's such a big song with such a big sound and a big vocal performance that one could easily see it as tacky and overdone (like I often see other Bowie ballads). Whatever may be, though, the song has never once pushed any of my cynicism buttons, and I can't see how it ever will. Bowie writes a great story with these lyrics, and if this great vocal performance (the best of his career) isn't dripping with actual, sincere emotion, then the only conclusion I can draw is that Bowie really had absolutely no emotion in him whatsoever. The music, meanwhile, simply couldn't have happened in any combination other than Bowie, Eno and Fripp coming together. The melody and basic pattern of the song came from Eno and Bowie feeding off each other; the sound, produced by Visconti and Bowie or not, is saturated with various Eno production tricks; and, of course, there's Fripp's playing. Fripp and Eno might have collaborated previously to create bizarre (and often borderline unlistenable) guitar/synth experiments, but Fripp's guitar had also been responsible for some of the most interesting and often gorgeous (in a fully non-cliched manner) moments of Eno's solo albums (not to mention some of Fripp's more beautiful moments in other contexts, most notably in King Crimson but also in other places like the end of "A Plague of Lifehouse Keepers"). Another guitarist might not have had the, um, discipline to play so few notes and hold those notes out so long, and another guitarist might not have picked a tone so strangely alien and yet so instinctually familiar and so beautiful. Yup, this is pretty much as good as any track on a Bowie album could get.

Of course, even people who like the "normal" half of the album tend to lose the plot in the instrumental portion of the album, but I'll have none of that. One thing that is essential with these four tracks is to listen to and absorb them as a set: the opening "V-2 Schneider" can mostly work on its own, yes, but it's even more striking when paired with the completely different "Sense of Doubt," and the other two definitely work better as the conclusion of the first two. As with the second side of Low, if you hate ambient music, you'll probably dismiss these tracks without a second thought, but it would be your loss to do so. And frankly, what kind of fool would turn away from the greatness of "V-2 Schneider" just because the only words in the track are a repetition of the title in the last minute or so? As much as I love ""Heroes,"" this is only a smidge behind it, and if I had ever had the chance to attend a Bowie concert and hear the first notes of this track, I would have gone nuts. Aside from an absolute winner of a bassline, it's full of chord changes that don't quite happen on the beat you'd expect, saxophone parts that are similarly slightly off-kilter, and guitar sounds that evoke the image of a rocket or missle without any difficulty whatsoever, and anybody who's not won over by the time the vocals come in will never like instrumental music.

The following "Sense of Doubt" is credited solely to Bowie, but that's a misnomer; the track works because of conflicting instructions Bowie and Eno received from Eno's Oblique Strategies deck, so Eno really deserves credit as much as Bowie does here. There's a main theme of a low-pitched descending series of three notes, covered in synths and other noises (especially creaking Bowie vocal sounds) that make me picture a terrible black-and- white nightmare of seeing a city after it's gotten a nuclear weapon dropped into it (why that image? Well, why not that image?). One part in the track kills me every time I hear it: the single swelling synth chord that starts playing at 1:44 and is held for 11 seconds before finally dropping down a step and going into a melody of sorts. After "Sense of Doubt" ends on a relatively optimistic/triumphant note (at least, as much as this track allows), in comes "Moss Garden" (with a formal credit to Eno), featuring Bowie on a koto with stately atmospheric guitar and synth textures, and finally we have "Neuköln," a song about a district in West Berlin that the synths and the wailing saxophone make sound like a pretty desolate place. I'll admit that the suite isn't 100% gripping in every moment from start to finish, but as a whole it's fantastic, and yes, I included the whole suite on the "Eno and Friends" compilation I mentioned earlier.

If you're a Bowie fan who doesn't like this, I'd definitely be pretty surprised. If you're an Eno fan who doesn't like this, I'd be flabbergasted. Either way, it's one of the biggest "must own" recommendations I can give for any album from the late 70's.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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