David Bowie: “Heathen” (2002)
This is a Really Good Fucking Album™, and would still be so if only for the track “5:15 The Angels Have Gone”. It starts off as a fairly minimalist, almost offensively simple number, that then erupts into one of the most magnificent choruses I’ve ever heard on a Bowie album. It a chorus that reminds us that Bowie is not only a legendary songwriter and a pop iconoclast, but is also one the greatest vocalists of the modern era. To listen this chorus is to see the clouds part before you and the heavens emit rays of golden voice-light that bathe you in the warmth of knowing that everything is going to be okay.
Anyway, “Heathen” is a wonderful palate-cleanser after the plushy Sting-ness of “hours…” Bowie’s first album of the new millennium sees him leave Reeves Gabrels behind and reunite with legendary producer and collaborator Tony Visconti, as well as bring in some heavy hitters — Pete Townshend, Dave Grohl, Tony Visconti, Lisa Germano — to guest on a few tracks. Carlos Alomar is back in the mix as well, and David Torn begins his stint as resident Bowie stunt-guitarist. Wikipedia mentions that, though the songs were written prior to the September 11 attacks, the album nonetheless seems to address the tension pervading the country at the time — Bowie himself had been living in NYC for some time by then.
The album definitely sports its fair share of slick production, but thankfully nothing as saccharine as “hours…” There’s an organic quality to everything on this album, and the covers Bowie performs — the Pixies, Neil Young, and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy — retain a certain rawness.
The only point at which this album falters, for me, is when we near the end and hit “Everyone Says ‘Hi'”. The more I listen to the song, the more I enjoy it, but it’s still a little too… happy. And the follow-up, “A Better Future” just loses me completely; it feels twee, at best. (That said, the remix by Air repairs a lot of the damage; I’d have preferred if it were the definitive version.)
In all, “Heathen” has been a refreshing waypoint on my journey through Bowie’s output. A good chunk of his ’90s work was just a tough row to hoe for me. As with any artists with such a long and productive career, I think we tend to pick and choose those works that resonate with us. IMO, “Heathen” is an essential album to have in one’s Bowie collection.
Oh, an addendum: there are a lot of outtakes from this album, so if you’re enjoying it, seek them out. Some are new songs, some are re-recordings for Bowie’s past, and all of them are wonderful.