Heathen is a huge milestone for Bowie. For the first time since Scary Monsters, he reconnected with Tony Visconti, and what a magical combo they are. I don’t want to attribute to much to Visconti, because Bowie’s glam albums weren’t with him, and Buddha of Suburbia which I also consider a high point of Bowie’s post-Let’s Dance career was almost entirely Bowie. But Heathen does have a magic to it. This album gives me a lot of the same feelings that Blackstar does, because he’s overly concerned about death. There’s a really heavy doom and gloom vibe that grows on you, like a post-world decay where Bowie is the sole witness before even he blinks out of existence.
Sunday blinks into existence. Its stuttering guitar line acts like a radio signal transmitted through space, Bowie singing like the last astronaut. It’s haunting with the synth building over a chanting vocal. It’s not menacing, just neutral, and when the signal should cut off, it’s restarted over and over again, like Bowie has one last thing to add, and finally Bowie escalates “everything has chaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAANGED” over a ferocious drum fill. Even Slip Away, having played up the feeling of then/now on Toy and given the radio signal treatment like Sunday, has a message of death. If Bowie was the last astronaut on Sunday, he’s trapped in the past as the future melts here. It’s an excellent song but not as powerful as on Toy where the chorus was teased out until the very end. Here, they introduce it more traditionally – and hey, it is a great chorus – earlier on, but it loses momentum when it goes back to the verses. Afraid, on the other hand, shines in its Heathen form. It has a newfound bite with the electric guitar more stable and in charge with the acoustic guitar offering commentary in between. Bowie’s singing and the instrumentation play up the nervous element a whole lot more in this form, and the violins that saw away at the chorus are like angels of death, seeming beautiful before they kill.
Even when the music doesn’t sound so apocalyptic, there’s still a unifying theme of death. Everyone Says “Hi” seems sweet, but it really plays out like a letter written by a child that doesn’t quite understand death yet to someone who’s died. Bowie sings in a higher voice that’s different from a lot of the songs on this album, and it suits the glistening instrumentation. The strings are almost a touch too saccharine, especially coupled with all the shimmering effects, but honestly I love it, and I think it puts a light sheen that goes well with the lyrics. I like that Bowie does sing it like a child and not like an adult, because a line like “you can always come back home, we can do all the old things” would be heartbreaking sung a different way, but it’s innocent here. He even throws in some fun “doo wop wop” background vox.
As the album title would suggest, the album is as concerned with religion as it is with death. One of the three singles, I’ve Been Waiting for You by Neil Young, is menacing in a way that seems like its God or the Devil making the call. I read that Dave Grohl plays guitar on here, and he’s just one of the guest guitarists on the album (another link to Scary Monsters). I Would Be Yr Slave casts Bowie into a character similar to Station to Station’s Word on a Wing, where he was also crying out for God to be there for him. He simultaneously dismisses God and begs for him. I love the way Bowie sings, so full of anguish and bitterness, and the synths and creepy guitar really underscore that. The bass is so out of character though, bouncing with so much fun that I thought Gail Ann Dorsey was playing (she’s not).
Right before the end of the album, the love/hate of God is in full force on A Better Future. It’s a lot more passive and cheerful than the gloomy reflection from before. The drum beat sounds like a perversion of Modern Love, another song with similar religious themes, and it’s not the last time Bowie will make a subtle but great callback to earlier songs. The lyrics and the singing don’t match up so much, because his “demand” sounds like it doesn’t care about the answer even when he’s threatening to stop wanting, needing and loving. I love when his big, deep vocals break in near the end.
Even as he scrapped the self-cover album Toy, I like how all three of the covers on this album are so different and show his diverse musical interests. He has such a shaky history with covers, but these are all choice. He covers Pixies who seem like a band Bowie would love, and he also covers I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship by a musician named Stardust Cowboy from the ’60s, and that’s what Bowie sounds like on a song that couldn’t have been more perfectly chosen. He sounds like he’s Ziggy again but zooming through space like a Douglas Adams character. It sounds like revival of the Earthling sound, and I like how he implemented it here with the strings and the halting but sexy vocal delivery. The original song by Stardust Cowboy is super weird and doesn’t sound at all like Bowie’s cover. The covers don’t all fit into the narrative of the album, and to be honest I’m making up this narrative just through common themes, but they’re all great.
Even the biggest song doesn’t really fit with the themes I mentioned earlier. Slow Burn is almost mythic. I’m a noted critic of anthems, but Bowie nails them. Slow Burn fits into the leagues of Life On Mars? and “Heroes”. It seems like it would just be a mid tempo jam, but it all the elements work together to make the song as big as its initial aspirations. Pete Townshend plays the lead guitar as wildly as Robert Fripp did on “Heroes”, and Bowie sounds totally otherworldly in the chorus. The sax interjects at times, and it’s such a perfect combination all around. The lyrics are great all around on this song and the album as a whole, but one I particularly love comes from here, where he sings, “who are we, so small in times such as these”. Apparently Bowie feels like he was predicting 9/11 on this song and the closer, and it’s pretty scary how well the songs could reflect that.
On my three favorite Bowie albums, there’s a feeling of movement. On Low, Bowie is physically moving from Los Angeles to Berlin. Blackstar doesn’t need an explanation. Heathen isn’t as clear, but it’s a move to the style that would inform his final three albums, a return to working with Tony Visconti, and because this album is so concerned with the dying, it creates an immediate link with Blackstar for me. A song like 5:15 is both lyrically and musically in a waiting area. The drums on here are great, like they are on a lot of the songs on the album. I love the way they intrude suddenly throughout the album, and it’s no different here.
There have been a lot of songs throughout this listen-through that have made me cry but none harder than Heathen (The Rays). It has a finality to it similar to I Can’t Give Everything Away, and it breaks me up. Bowie sounds despondent while the guitars and drums around him march ever onward to the end. Finally, he’s breaking down and I always do at the same time. I don’t want to constantly talk about Blackstar, but it’s so hard not to at this point when this song is so overtly about a dying star, and when listening to Blackstar is the embodiment of the feeling of this song, of looking at the sunset and knowing that it’s already set and you’re just seeing an after effect. It’s chilling, and it makes both albums two of emotional, wonderful and haunting listens.