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David Bowie - Heathen CD (album) cover


David Bowie


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3.74 | 205 ratings

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4 stars If Gabrels had known Bowie was going to do an album like this, maybe he wouldn't have left after Hours .... Then again, maybe this album wouldn't have happened if Gabrels hadn't left. While part of me feels a bit like a sheep for jumping on the "Best Bowie Album Since Scary Monsters" bandwagon, I can't get around the fact that, to my ears, Bowie actually sounds like he knows what he's doing again, and while Bowie sounding competent and in control may not be enough for me to worship one of his albums, it's definitely enough for me to like one of his albums a lot. Fact is, I enjoy and respect this album every bit as much as I do Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Low and Scary Monsters (and maybe more on a good day), and it would be silly for me to give this a lower grade than any of those.

The strongest parallel to Scary Monsters is that this album freely embraces elements of Bowie's past while not overly dwelling on any of them. He sounds mature, but he does not sound old; his vocals are far stronger than on Hours ..., and nothing screams out "mid-life crisis" like the worst elements of Earthling. The album sounds like a classic Bowie album, and yet it doesn't reject useful developments since his classic period. One major contributing factor to these positives is the return of producer Tony Visconti, back from his own ups and downs over the previous 20 years (like his uninspiring production work on late 80's Moody Blues albums) and who always seemed to have a knack for helping Bowie sort out his better ideas from his lesser ones. Not every song is fantastic, but there's not a single moment on the album where I go, "Huh, that's kinda stupid," and that's one hell of an accomplishment.

One terrific aspect of the album is how good the covers are. "Cactus" (by The Pixies) gets reborn as a decadent synth-heavy rocker, yet it still retains much the same atmosphere as before, and Bowie remains faithful to the spirit of the original when he spells out "D-A-V-I-D" in the appropriate place. "I've Been Waiting for You" (by Neil Young) has a guest appearance on guitar from Dave Grohl, but the sound is so thick that he doesn't really get emphasized. The song is great, anyway: it's an awfully obscure choice as far as Neil Young songs go, and I'm glad Bowie introduced it to me. The peak of the covers, though, comes in "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship," by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (from whom David took the "Stardust" moniker so long ago). I've never heard the original, but if it had anything as breathtaking as the combination of uptempo electronic percussion and almost psychedelic string and saxophone parts to go with these silly and addictive lyrics, I'll be surprised. Welcome back, you great genre-smoosher you.

With the originals, I kinda feel like I need to go track by track. Just as "Thursday's Child" made it immediately clear that the last album was going to be a rather chill, rather straightforward affair, "Sunday" makes it clear that this album will be kinda disorienting. The only track in the previous few albums that really could surpass this on pure atmosphere would probably be "The Motel" from Outside, but as much as I like that one, it really just has the atmosphere, the lyrics and a rambling melody. This one has a more somber atmosphere (oh WOW that's a great keyboard sound), but it's a jittery atmosphere, full of nagging percussion and layers of Bowie backing vocals and lyrics centered around the troubling phrases, "Nothing has changed/everything has changed." Once it breaks into a more uptempo finish, it's practically a relief; there's no optimism, but at least there's some tension release.

After "Cactus" comes my first favorite of the album, the glorious nostalgia piece "Slip Away." The absolute key to this track is the way the piano sounds like something out of an old movie, like in that part of The Godfather after Michael's killed Solozzo and the police chief and all the various newspaper headlines are shown while a piano part plays underneath it. Of course, as important of a foundation as that piano part lays, it wouldn't matter much without the Ziggy-like orchestrations in the sweeping climaxes of the parts with lines like, "Sailing over Coney Island/Twinkle twinkle, Uncle Floyd." The track is absolutely gorgeous, and I would argue that it even goes so far as to surpass "Life on Mars?" from so many years ago.

"Slow Burn" is a clear nod to ""Heroes"" and "Teenage Wildlife," and the clearly derivative nature of the track might be annoying if it weren't for (a) that bassline being so danged marvelous, (b) the vocal melody being so catchy and moving and (c) having such fantastic guitar lines from Pete Townshend. Did Tony just have an old rolodex somewhere that had Pete's number in it? Whatever inspired Tony and David to call up Pete for the first time since Scary Monsters, it was heaven-sent. Another good rocker (unfortunately with no Pete on it) immediately follows in "Afraid," and while David's vocals sound a little weak on it (one of the few times), it has a good enough guitar line, good enough orchestration and a weird enough synth line in some of the breaks to make the song worth it.

Sandwiched between "I've Been Waiting for You" and "Gemini Spaceship" comes "I Would Be Your Slave," an uptempo string-laden pop ballad that has way more emotional oomph than I would have imagined from a song with that title. Bowie's singing is almost incidental in the track: the arrangement (especially once the quiet guitar line becomes prominent) overshadows him, in a good way. After "Gemini Spaceship" comes another surprisingly good song in "5:15 The Angels Are Gone." At first the keyboard line makes it seem like we're going to have something as adult-contemporaryish as much of Hours ..., but the drums and bassline do enough to mitigate those concerns until the track explodes into an alternate part that's clearly more complex (musically and emotionally) than average AC.

"Everyone Says Hi" has a wonderfully hokey brief orchestral theme that pops up repeatedly near the beginning, but the song shouldn't be defined solely by that. It has this great habit of unfolding one nice idea after another, climaxing with some great simple guitar lines and silly Bowie backing vocals around the verse starting with, "If the money is lousy/You can always come home/We can do the old things/We can do all the bad things." "A Better Future" starts off sounding like a menacing noise piece, but it quickly turns into a fascinatingly catchy uptempo pop song (full of great guitar lines!!) with a midsection that's noisy and atmospheric while still fitting in with the poppiness of the rest.

Yet it's ultimately the closing "Heathen (The Rays)" that fascinates and thrills me enough to consider giving this an even higher grade. Mostly, I just find it amazing that Bowie, even with Visconti at his side, would have had any interest in making tracks like this anymore. It's semi-directionless, almost solely relying on atmosphere and fantastic old-school keyboard sounds (with grumbly guitars as needed), with lyrics that don't have meaning but are dripping with imagery, and it would have been a clear highlight even on Low or "Heroes". Interestingly, my wife (not a Bowie fan by any means) observed that the track sounded in parts similar to one of the tracks from the soundtrack to The Labyrinth, but she agreed with me that it sounded way better than anything from there.

Now, there are some drawbacks that make me hold back some enthusiasm. The album runs a little long for me not to feel a little tired near the end (I always love the closer, but "Everyone Says Hi" and "A Better Future" sound way better to me out of context than in it), and I'm not sure it couldn't have been sequenced in a better way. Not every track is fantastic, either. And yet, it's a remarkable album, and I don't see why any David Bowie fan wouldn't enjoy it a lot.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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