Released in 2002, Heathen was seen as something of a comeback for David Bowie, at least in terms of how well it did in the charts. It not only enjoyed a notable success in sales but with critics also.
Heathen opens with “Sunday”, an atmospheric track which leads you into the album slowly, with a downbeat vibe. It kicks off just as the song ends, leaving you wanting more. Luckily, it is quickly followed by a very cool cover of The Pixies‘ “Cactus”, written by frontman Black Francis. Short and sweet is the best way to describe this one: a delicious, rock n’ roll appetiser for what follows.
“Slip Away” is next and it’s a jazzy, nostalgic tune with Mr Bowie in full crooner mode. There’s a soothing 60’s feel to the track in general but the beautiful chorus is pure David Bowie and the whole thing you could see at home in a full-on musical. One of the prettiest tracks on the album, without a doubt. Pete Townshend accompanies on guitar in the following track “Slow Burn” which was the first single to be released from Heathen. It’s also the track which earned Bowie a Grammy award nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance and rightly so: “Slow Burn” is a fantastic song with fab vocals, guitar work and one hell of a chorus.
“Afraid” is next and it looks set to be the rockiest track yet with its fast-paced riffs when the chorus kicks in and, surprisingly, slows things down little by little adding an unexpected dose of regret and melancholy to the song. “I’ve Been Waiting For You”, a cover of an old Neil Young song follows and that one has Dave Grohl on guitar, delivering some welcome screeching backing twangs. It’s a terrific cover with a grungy tone, and you’d never guess the song originally dates back to 1968.
The seventh track is “I Would Be Your Slave” and, like the opening song, it’s a more atmospheric effort though this one has a sadder, more desperate feel to it. The non-intrusive synth backing (and guitar) do a good job at enhancing Bowie’s vocals, giving the beautiful lyrics even more weight. A cover of an old psychobilly song is next and proves that you just can’t go wrong with a song entitled “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft”. Originally by Legendary Stardust Cowboy, the song is part-jazz, part-soul, a mish-mash of different styles which works surprisingly well, especially when the bridge kicks in.
“5:15 The Angels Have Gone” opens small with subdued backing choirs, a few guitar picks and lonely beats. There’s a bit of a surreal quality to the song which changes completely whenever the chorus pops up. It’s a slightly bizarre one but the verses are so pretty they make it well worth it. The second single to be released from Heathen, “Everyone Says Hi”, is arguably the lightest track on the album. It’s a well put-together song and it has some great moments, especially as it builds-up towards the end.
Next we have “A Better Future”, which opens with a bouncy beat which cleverly contrasts to the deadpan vocals Bowie delivers. It’s another track that’s hard to pin down since it’s constantly evolving and doesn’t have a conventional chorus but it’s definitely effective as a transition to the album’s final song, which happens to be the title track. David Bowie has a tendency to end his albums on more of a question mark but “Heathen (The Rays)” is actually more accessible, with its 50’s-style beat and upbeat vocals.
What to make of Heathen, then?
It’s easy to see why the album did as well as it did: there are some beautiful tracks on here and some kickass covers, Bowie himself is as good as ever and his band is extremely talented and versatile. Having said that, Heathen is a uniformly odd little creation. While it has its fun moments, it’s mostly quite moody and distracted, always going places you wouldn’t expect it to, as if it were constantly challenging you or Bowie himself was conveying his thought process when writing those tracks as they are happening, somehow. All in all, this is probably not everyone’s favourite album of his but it’s still a must since its greatest tracks are not only great, they’re damn great.
That’s 3 Ziggies out of 5 for Heathen, an album Bowie fans will no doubt have a great time discovering or re-discovering.