Review Summary: When David has faith in Bowie again…
What really makes a classic David Bowie record? Aside from the vivid imagery of his numerous personas and the distinctive sounds constructed in his past; what makes an album by England’s finest musical chameleon seem right is when Bowie is being the same Bowie who created those masterpieces over 30 years ago - that is to say, when he’s not consciously pushing to be on trend or trying to live up to expectations, but rather the opposite - just going into the studio with a head full of ideas and a goal of making a great album; not a great ‘Bowie’ album.
In a sense, that’s what Heathen
represents - Bowie finally believing in himself as an individual artist once again, who can release whatever he feels is right for himself rather trying to be one of the in-crowd, or an innovator. Although the 90s saw a string of solid and well-constructed efforts from Bowie, beneath those disc surfaces laid the sound of a man who was scared, worried and fearful. The genre hopping may seem optimistic to some but to this writer, despite the scant 90s highpoints, Bowie's actions seemed nervy - as though he was uncertain of himself or where he should focus his ideas.
, or at least based on the strength of its tracks, one gets a warming and refreshing sense that Bowie finally found where his creativity should call home for the first time since 1980. There’s no trying to fit into a curve or attempts at crafting some overblown concept, just an album full of strong material, skilful arrangements and a sense that Bowie had finally embraced his past, rather than continued to repress it. There’s no care for the future, just the now, and what Bowie, as a singer and songwriter, could squeeze out of the present. In the process, Heathen
becomes ageless - the lack of pop-modernism prevents it from slipping out of a trend it might’ve otherwise slipped into, and it’s subtle embrace of the past makes it reminiscent of earlier glory days, without seeming retrospective or replicative of a time gone by.
is just a great album, period. With the able hands of erstwhile producer Tony Visconti to guide the newly confident Bowie the pair managed to churn out more than a few modern gems. The aching Pete Townshend guitars and quietly retro bass of ‘Slow Burn’ make for an absolute belter, matched by the likes of the contemplative ‘Afraid’, which features glorious Visconti arranged orchestration; and its follow-up - the snarling, desperate, ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’; in which both Bowie’s voice and Dave Grohl’s guitar ring out fabulously. The cover tracks are just as satisfying, with only one of them (‘I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship’) shaping up as a less compelling listen, simply because it seems a tad superfluous when the rest of the Bowie composed material is as effective as it is; although having said that, the cover of The Pixies’ ‘Cactus’ is sublime.
is a great album and Bowie’s best since 1980’s Scary Monsters
, but it’s not a ‘classic’ album. It is, however, a classic Bowie album - even though it comes a star short of five - in the sense that it hints at the same characteristics possessed by an artist who crafted those iconic masterpieces years ago. It’s not because this album ranks alongside such efforts, but rather because it captures Bowie’s mind in a similar frame as it was back then – not worried about living up to expectations or consciously trying to innovate, just recording what was right for him at the given moment. Heathen
is not a classic album, but comes as close to such a title as any modern Bowie record could ever hope to because there’s an undercurrent of awareness that understands that creating such an experience is nigh on impossible. Instead, Heathen
just makes the best out of the present, and ultimately, the results are nothing less than a delightful success to behold for fans and casual listeners alike.