Friday, 10 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #74: Heathen (2002)

David Bowie's third chart entry is Heathen, the second record of his 'neo-classical' period and the darker follow-up to the comeback effort 'hours...' (1999). It became Bowie's biggest chart success of recent years and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.Despite the departure of his guitarist Reeve Gabrels - who described the music on 'hours...' as "too soft"¹ - Bowie was on a bounce after abandoning the electronica and drum and bass he had dabbled with in the mid-1990s. His next project, entitled Toy, was scheduled as an album containing new editions of old classics plus three new songs - perhaps like a self-referencing version of his cover album Pin-Ups (1973), or a studio album with a live setlist. Recording began in 2000 but was quickly abandoned. In 2001 Bowie appeared in the Concert for New York City following the 9/11 attacks, before returning to the studio once again under the successful eye of producer Tony Visconti.

The album begins with 'Sunday'. The choral harmonies and eerie guitar create the atmosphere before Bowie's ageing voice counterpoints it perfectly. The lyrics are not as distinct as you might expect, but their delivery is thankfully absence of the sentimentality that plagued 'hours...'. Lines like Nothing has changed/ Everything has changed manage to sum up his predicament: he is still producing what the fans want, but the rest of the world has moved on, leaving him in what could be called the musical graveyard. Bowie sounds depressed, almost despondant, and it works very well, even with the odd-fitting drums at the end.

'Cactus', a cover of the song by The Pixies, begins with some irritating cymbals and continues with Bowie being even more so. Being a cover, it doesn't fit well, and being a alt-rock/ pre-grunge song, it is of a style that Bowie has so far been unable to master. The lyrics are almost unlistenable, especially with Bowie's tinny drawing out of the refrain. Before long, we return to sanity in the form of 'Slip Away'. Also called 'Uncle Floyd', this is more minimalist and again features some eerie guitar. With piano reminiscent of Hunky Dory (1971), the production at the start has a vinyl-ish feel to it - much like Kanute (#77) - and features some nice, if underused, strings in the background. Bowie delivers the cloudy lyrics in a cross between despair and desperation, until he has you by the scruff of the ears.

'Slow Burn' brings both bass and guitar to the forefront while maintaining the brooding atmosphere. Pete Townshend (The Who) and Tony Levin (King Crimson) add an aggressive edge to Bowie's vocals, which as before betray despondency and uncertainty about the future. It's a fine vocal performance which serves, if nothing else, to silence critics claiming that Bowie's voice had deteriorated. The prominent guitar continues on 'Afraid', another ornate string piece made complete with some strong drums. There is a mild sense of paranoia apparent in this song, although the lyric I'm still so afraid/ On my own may be a hint at his marriage to Somali model Imam.

'I've Been Waiting For You' is another cover, this time of Neil Young. It's one of the shortest tracks on the albun, and also the slightest. There are some interesting rhythms, for sure, but it sounds like Bowie is fumbling around for an alternative to Young's Canadian brogue. Generally it's a less impressive effort, which tries to be atmospheric and yet tries so hard that it is destined to fall short.

'I Will Be Your Slave' is a return to the standard we have come to expect. It's a song of submission and acceptance of one's fate, which may sound a little hollow to the untrained ear. On closer inspection however, there are some decent strings and synthesised effects. For the really careful listener, one can detect some deeply pitched pedal steel guitar murmuring in the background.

'I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship' is the third and final cover on the album. Considering the insipidness of the other two attempts, it doesn't have much going for it - especially when we discover that it was originally done by the a-melodious drawling that is The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an American one-'hit' wonder who lent his name (more than anything else) to Bowie's most famous incarnation. The song opens like a standardised dance song, the kind of rubbish that graces inner city clubs. We are then forced to listen to Bowie mumble along while the background noise dominates. This song is awful because it doesn't do justice on two counts. One, it doesn't sound remotely like the original (though, one could hazard a guess, that would be worse). And two, it is not of the kind of quality Bowie should be giving his fans.

Rant over. Bowie's favourite song on the album, '5:15 The Angels Have Gone', is a thousand times better. It's focussed, comprehensive and has a clear sense of emotion. Where the previous track adopted the dance philosophy (deafen people so much that they don't care and become irrationally happy), this doesn't force you to feel anything; it merely sets the appropriate atmosphere to hint at how you should feel. There is some wonderful drumming on this, not because it is especially impressive on a technical level, but because it's inobtrusive, unlike a lot of modern rock.

'Everyone Says 'Hi'' is the last real slip-up on the album. It's begins like a cheapened version of one of the instrumentals of "Heroes" (1977). But then it transforms into a tinny outtake from Hunky Dory or The Man Who Sold The World (1970). No, wait, it's a Berlin era piece with the background synthesisers. Or is it a middle-of-the-road pop-rock song? It just can't make up its mind, and as a result this is a piece of aimless cacophony.

'A Better Future' sets out to be a new piece in the style of the Berlin era, only with lighter touches, and of course modern production. Lyrically speaking, this is a repetitive effort from Bowie, and his delivery is relatively timid. Nonetheless, this is a very good song depending on how you read it. Lines like I demand a better future/ Or I might just stop needing you good be about his family or, more likely, his career. Maybe this is a statement to his new label to get things right from the start.

After all this tossing and turning, we come to 'Heathen (The Rays)'. This is a superlative composition. This has a funereal feel to it, not in the sense that it is dirgeful, but in that it is steeped in melancholy (not unlike Wish You Were Here (1975)). Bowie is at his most exposed for a long time, delivering lines like Waiting for something/ Looking for someone/ Is there no reason?/ Have I stayed too long? with an almost galling amount of deadpan. It's a brilliant song, no question.

Heathen is a good effort from Bowie. 'Good' is the word, because neither is this magnificent on the scale of his work in the 1970s, nor is it an insipid shot at commercial success like in the mid-1980s. It's a two-faced album in many ways: it's a document both of Bowie's sentimental, at-ease feelings at this stage of his career, and his feelings of despair at the modern world and towards himself. At ease with the past, uncertain of the present. That is not to say that this is a desperate album; unlike Low (1977) this is not forceful and brooding, and where there are Berlin-era influences that are counterbalanced with washes of electronica. If nothing else, Heathen is testament to Bowie's lasting talent as a songwriter - proved, ironically, by the direness of the covers. Let's just hope that he gets the message for his next comeback, which is, incidentally, long overdue.

¹ 'David Bowie', Accessed on August 10 2007.

3.75 out of 5

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