Another label change set up Bowie’s next album, but the big news on Heathen was the return to the fold of producer/creative foil Tony Visconti. Sure enough, the album was his strongest in years. Much of the content seemed to be influenced by the aftermath of 9/11, though Bowie insisted most of it was in the can before that. (Indeed, some was even left over from sessions for the aborted Toy project, which was to present new compositions alongside rerecorded songs he originally did back in the pre-“Space Oddity” days.)
Overall, the sound mixes nods to his Berlin era with a cold, claustrophobic atmosphere and ruminations on a world in turmoil. “Sunday” begins the album with a spooky synth and a slow vocal, reporting that “nothing remains” and “everything has changed”. Similarly, “5:15 The Angels Have Come” and “Heathen (The Rays)” follow each narrator through a city where the trains are late and the sky is made of glass. The demand for “A Better Future” gets an edge when you consider the song is sung from the point of view of his young daughter.
“Slip Away” is an odd tribute of sorts to the obscure cult favorite, the Uncle Floyd TV show, with a gorgeous chorus and arrangement to match, complete with Stylophone. “Slow Burn” turns up the volume, boasting a searing lead guitar literally phoned in by Pete Townshend. The success of “Afraid” and “I Would Be Your Slave” depends on our mood, while “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” revives the best elements of his mid-‘80s pop sound; we especially like the nod to “Absolute Beginners” on one of the bridges.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bowie album without weird covers, and Heathen offers three: “Cactus” by the Pixies, “I’ve Been Waiting For You” from the first Neil Young album, and “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship” is his long overdue nod to the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Heathen was a very pleasant surprise, and easily his most consistent collection since the first Tin Machine album. He successfully combined some of his recent “sounds”, from pensive to electronic, and it looked like the 21st century was going to be another fruitful period for him. (The first version came with a strange little bonus disc, with two contemporary remixes and two re-recordings—“Panic In Detroit” from 1979, which had already been on Ryko’s Lodger reissue, and “Conversation Piece”, an excellent early B-side redone during the Toy sessions. It’s merely a curio that doesn’t add or subtract from the main program at all.)
David Bowie Heathen (2002)—3½
2007 limited 2CD edition: same as 2002, plus 10 extra tracks