In 2002, Bowie submitted this application for the tiny pool of Rock and Roll Comeback stories.
The grunge and noise rock inclinations of the Reeves Gabrels era are scaled back. The music that came before was like an overgrown forest, while Heathen has strip-cut and burned out areas of emptiness. If nothing else, the album has space.
It labours mightily to recapture the magic of 70s Bowie. The lead single “Slow Burn” is reheated “Heroes”, a song that captures distance and time with reverb-soaked guitars and a vaguely motorik-inspired drum performance (and a Pete Townsend guitar solo, too). The Pixies cover “Cactus” strangely echoes the jangly, raw Mick Ronson era.
And there’s one song that blends past and present bewilderingly: a cover of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s novelty song “I Took A Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” (Bowie, in a decision that will never be explained, changed the title to “-Craft”.)
The “Ledge”, incidentally is an odd character from Lubbock, Texas, briefly famous in the 60s (he inspired Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” name) and then forgotten. Bowie had heard that he was complaining of never making any money from Ziggy Stardust, and figured out a way to make him whole!
“Everyone Says Hi” and “A Better Future” are charming and innocent, but thin starvelings of songs. “5.15 The Angels Have Gone” is heftier, and has better hooks. The title track “Heathen” is wonderful, containing lumbering guitars, and lonely saxophone lines (which evokes “Heroes” once again).
I like a lot of Heathen, but I prefer the baroque side to the efforts at writing hits on the first half of the album. I’m also surprised by how good the covers are. Normally, covers are the weaknesses of Bowie’s albums, not the strong parts.