The Good: Good vocals, Decent sound, Most lyrics
The Bad: Short, Limited vocal range and musical stylings.
The Basics: David Bowie's Heathen is a good pop album, but it is not his strongest work musically or lyrically and does not illustrate the full breadth of his vocal range.
For those who might not be following my November Artist Of The Month reviews, I stepped into a peculiar quagmire when I chose to immerse myself in the works of David Bowie for the month. My wife, obsessed with Bowie's works, was excited for me and us as it would give us more common experiences and I could come to love the Bowie. The truth it, I appreciate the works of David Bowie, but just as I refuse to rubberstamp the works of Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, I will not concede that everything Bowie produces is perfect. This, naturally, puts me into direct competition with my wife, who would rate everything by David Bowie as an eight or above.
Never has this sense of conflict been greater between us than as I sit down to review Heathen, what I hear as a remarkably average album and what turns out to be my wife's favorite album of all time. Where I note that this sounds like remarkably average pop rock, my wife notes is part of Bowie's appeal and range: he can do industrial, rock and roll, jazzy, soul, and even pop with equal greatness. Ultimately, for me, Heathen comes down to two things: 1. As it is the first post-Best Of Bowie album, I am attentive to the fact that I am not hearing any song that I would add to Bowie's repertoire of best songs and 2. Just because Bowie has phenomenal range and he can do a fairly traditional pop-rock album does not mean that when he does one, it is the best pop album ever. That said, this is a good album, but not one of Bowie's best or most indispensable.
With a dozen songs coming in at 51:38, Heathen is one of Bowie's works coming from a time when he clearly knows how cool he is. He is so cool that in the liner notes, he can put a line through the lyrics and credits and who's going to complain? It's David Bowie, he's cool for making everything difficult to decipher. While not terribly ambitious in terms of its sound, Heathen is very much David Bowie's musical vision. Still, David Bowie did not write all of the songs on the album, he wrote nine of the songs, with two others being covers and "I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship" being credited to "Legendary Stardust Cowboy," so from the liner notes, that's anyone's guess. His covers of "Cactus" and "I've Been Waiting For You" fit the rest of the album perfectly, though.
In addition to writing most, but not all, of the songs on the album, David Bowie is credited with co-producing almost all of the songs. He provides the lead vocals on every song and does many of his own backing vocals as well. As well, he plays an impressive number of his own instruments on Heathen, not just farming those duties out to others. As a result, he is credited with playing keyboards, guitars, sax, stylophone, and drums. In this regard, he once again proves that he has a mastery of all elements in the process of making music and the album is all the better for it.
When Bowie does hire out instrumentally, he gets a great combination of classic and contemporary sources. Dave Grohl plays guitar on "I've Been Waiting For You" and Peter Townshend lends his guitar to "Slow Burn" and Bowie used each of them well. Grohl's guitarwork on "I've Been Waiting For You" is both a series of memorable riffs and predictably within Grohl's established range as a guitarist.
Heathen largely has a decent, if predictable pop-rock sound to it. As a result, tracks are guitar or keyboard driven and the entire album has a fairly produced sound to it. "Afraid" is polished and ethereal and while other tracks have grated on me with continual listens (I'm on my twelfth listen now), I continue to appreciate "Afraid" more. Thematically, Heathen is diverse, but tends to move toward the weird with songs like "I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft" and "Everyone Says 'Hi'." Still, he makes songs about love and devotion sound new again with "I Would Be Your Slave" and he makes frustration musical on "Sunday."
Vocally, David Bowie is polished, produced and safely within his smooth niche on Heathen. He does not strain his range, though he does hold his highest notes longest on "I Would Be Your Slave." Still, his voice is so mechanized and sublimated to the beats on "5:15 The Angels Have Gone" that the sound bears little resemblance to Bowie's natural voice at points. Does it sound good? Sure, it is well produced, but I suspect a live version would be dramatically different.
Lyrically, it is hard to argue that David Bowie is anything but wonderful. When my wife and I got to talking about Heathen, "A Better Future" came up. I gave that another look and lyrically, it exceeds many of Bowie's songs, deserving to be considered one of his best. Indeed, it is hard to think where David Bowie has used such poignant imagery to describe the mix of desire and frustration than when he pens the lines "Please don't tear this world asunder / Please take back / This fear we're under / I demand a better future / Or I might just stop wanting you / I might just stop wanting you / Please make sure we get tomorrow / All this pain and all the sorrow / I demand a better future / Or I might just stop needing you / I might just stop needing you" ("A Better Future"). David Bowie has a wonderful ability to express universal concepts in ways that sound fresh and new, as if he just created the emotions and is putting the first definitions to them. That he does that musically is part of what makes him a genius.
Even when he is being somewhat simple, David Bowie can still make magic. He manages to have some fun on Heathen and one of the less complicated songs is a musical storysong. Bowie mellowly sings about an absent friend with an easy groove when he sings "Shoulda took a picture / Something I could keep / Buy a little frame / Something cheap / For you / Everyone says 'hi' / Said you sailed a big ship / Said you sailed away / Didn't know the right thing / To say / I'd love to get a letter / Like to know what's what / Hope the weather's good / And it's not too hot / For you. . ." ("Everyone Says Hi"). These are not Bowie's most complicated lyrics, but he still has something to say and it works out perfectly for him (and pretty well for the listener as well!).
Unfortunately, not all of the simplicity works out in Bowie's favor. Some of the songs, like "Slip Away" come across as silly and beneath Bowie. On that song, he mixes musical storytelling with nonsensical phrases so he ultimately says little or nothing comprehensible. This is mixed together in a troubling way, like "Oogie knew there's never ever time / Some of us will always stay behind / Down in space it's always 1982 / The joke we always knew . . . Don't forget to keep your head warm / Twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd / Watching all the world / And war torn / How I wonder where you are" ("Slip Away"). Bowie has much better songs than this and that it comes so early on Heathen drags the overall album down.
Ultimately, what sank Heathen into average territory for me was simple; after a dozen listens only two tracks truly stood out for me. The rest of it was fair, but blended together in a less distinct fashion than I have heard from David Bowie in the past. Still, there is just enough substance - and voice! - to it to recommend and for those looking for something new sounding in the old pop genre, Heathen will fit the bill.
The best track is "A Better Future," the low point is "Slip Away."
For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Christiane F. Soundtrack
Eart hl i ng
Best Of Bowie (1 Disc version)
The Best Of Bowie (2 Disc version)
For other music reviews, click here to visit my index page!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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