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2023 Albums Thing #045 - David Bowie “Heathen”

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Almost all of Bowie’s albums that we’ve visited thus far I could have written about without even listening to them again. I’ve told you previously I struggle with his 90’s output (we’ve skipped “Hours” as it’s another I don’t have on vinyl) and the same goes for much of the 2000’s too. So here we are in 2002 (the album, I am of course in 2023 and not claiming to have discovered the secret of time travel) and I’m sitting down with “Heathen” to try and make sense of it.

I think I’m coming to something of a realisation/revelation about these 90’s and early 2000’s albums I’ve had such a hard time with. When I first heard “The Next Day” and “★ Blackstar” (both of which we will get to very soon) I “got” them immediately. I now think I have to listen to these records from 1993 to 2003 with those two records in mind as a final landing point that I had no way of knowing at the time. 1971 to 1980 Bowie was easy to fall for. From then until “Black Tie White Noise” it seems to me he was lost and made some very lazy records, or records that were expressly made to make the money the Mainman exit deal had denied him, and he can’t be blamed for that. But if you take 1993 to 2003 as him building a new musical framework for himself culminating in those last 2 superb records the period makes a lot more sense, to me at least. Coming back to “Heathen” after something of a recent revelation with “1. Outside” has helped, I can’t compare post 1995 Bowie to 71-80 Bowie, I have to compare forward, not back. And when these records were released I could not know what was to come.

“Heathen” starts very gently with “Sunday” and then explodes into life with a cover of the Pixies “Cactus”. One thing that does surprise about “Heathen” is that there are 3 covers on this album (“Cactus”, Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You” and of course The Legendary Stardust Cowboys “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft”) and none of them are bad, had he finally got the hang of covers ? I’m not a fan of the Pixies which gave me the advantage of not knowing initially that “Cactus” was one of their songs. The Neil Young song, again I didn’t originally know this was a cover, didn’t know the original and Neil Young is a master songwriter. It’s fair to point out that the Legendary Stardust Cowboy tune is not so much of a cover but more Bowie lifting a title, some lyrics and writing a complete new song around them.

The centre piece of Side 1 is “Slip Away” (aka “Uncle Floyd” originally recorded as part of the “Toy” album sessions) a beautiful ballad sung brilliantly. It was inspired by, and mentions a 1980’s children’s TV show, “The Uncle Floyd Show”, which aired on New Jersey cable TV. The song is a meditation on lost life and opportunities. It’s an absolute stunner.

Other highlights include “Slow Burn” (featuring Pete Townshend on guitar) which comes on all “Heroes” for a second on the intro, it does cause a double take when you first hear it; “Afraid” starts out sounding very late 70’s New Wave until Visconti introduces a string section; “Everyone Says Hi” and “Better Future”, an argument with god apparently, are perfectly warped Bowie pop songs.

I’ll admit it, I’ve been wrong all these years, “Heathen“ is a great album. It picked up mainly great reviews, lots of “best album since Scary Monsters” types. After restoring his reputation post Tin Machine this record harked back toward the Bowie of Berlin and “Scary Monsters”. Bowie said of the album. 

I know how good this album is. It’s an incredibly successful album for me creatively. I wouldn’t change a note of it…I almost feel that I will be writing some of my very best work over the next few years

Little did he, or we, know that after his next album (2003’s “Reality” which we won’t cover here just yet as it’s another of the holes in my collection) circumstances would present us with no Bowie work over the next decade.

Slip Away - https://youtu.be/oFtNAXxwn-I

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