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David Bowie | Heathen | review | alternative | rock | Lollipop
by Lex Marburger
Some people say that the work of Davie Bowie is like crab brains: You either like it or you don't. But I've always had a love/hate relationship, from album to album, sometimes even song to song (Low = great album, "Joe the Lion" = bad song. You get the idea). Once, I even came up with the theory that every Bowie album only had one good song on it, and the rest was melodramatic filler. After a few black eyes from some surprisingly tough and wiry fanatics (all those years livin' in space, I guess), I decided to revise my opinions, Black Tie/White Noise notwithstanding. I was terribly excited in the mid-'90s when Outside and Earthling came out, because it seemed to signal a (nother) new beginning for Bowie, using almost-electronica beats and squealing guitars (ok, the guitars aren't that new, but they sure had been missing). But then Hours... came out, and lemme tell you, I didn't mind the themes to aging, or the mellower tone, but damn, the songs were just, kinda, well, dull. Don't be afraid, dear reader, I've been taking some self-defense classes. Anyway, when Heathen came across my desk, you can understand my trepidation about setting my sights on yet another hero of my youth gone bad.
Lucky me. I know some are enthralled by the "Modern Love"/"Gene Genie"/"Let's Dance"/"China Girl" style Bowie (well, "China Girl" wasn't that bad, but then again, I'm biased by the Iggy Pop factor), but I've always been a Low/"Heroes"/Lodger type of guy, the one who prefers "Breaking Glass" to "Fashion," "Moss Garden" over "Young Americans." OK, now that we've got that out of the way and you know where I'm coming from, I can now say that Heathen is the best work Bowie has done since, well, Outside. Heh. That is to say, he's got the attitude of his Berlin albums, mixed with the technology rampant in this decade. Back are the mournful lyrics, despondent tone, and something (dare I say?) that sounds more honest in his delivery ("5.15 The Angels Have Gone" puts the drums in another room while the guitar gently accompanies Bowie's bitter recitation). He's grabbing more digital production tricks ("Sunday" has a stuttering guitar riff that frames the song beautifully), while "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft" (yeah, he hasn't let up on that, yet. I can't believe Bowie's gonna let Lance Bass get into space before him) has the stuttering percussive breaks a modern listener is waiting for.
I guess that's what I've been missing up 'til now: The rhythms. Sometimes, he just sticks in a rather boring drum beat, like an afterthought (Hours... was full of this, by way of example). On Heathen, the songs sound much more complete, like he spent time on every element, crafting it just so. His writing style, while recognizable, doesn't sound dated, no matter how reminiscent of his (depressed) glory days. Even songs with swelling strings and pretty melodies ("Everyone Says 'Hi'") have a taint of winter, a fading beauty, a bereavement of some sort.
As far as the technical bits go, Reeves Gabrels isn't here this time around, and I have to tell you, hometown boy he may be, but his artificial harmonics/feedback icepick riffs got a little tiresome. Gone also is Mike Garson. I guess frantic keyboard attacks would be a little too disconcerting. And it's interesting to note that both Pete Townshend and Dave Grohl help out on guitar on a couple of tracks, but you can't really tell. Bowie's personality simply overwhelms them. Producing this time around, Bowie's gone back to long-time collaborator Toni Visconti, who gives him pop without taking away the sadness that makes bitter old fucks like me smile.