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Heathen
Artist: David Bowie 
label: Sony
Length: 12 tracks
                         
Taken as individual songs, these represent Bowie's strongest collection of rock songs in years. Taken as a whole, it can be seen as an exploration of Bowie's current dialogue with God. A compelling, complicated, and artful work of rock-and-roll.

From the opening song, “Sunday,” David Bowie makes it clear that Heathen is not going to be a pop, radio-friendly trifle. 

After his dalliance in electronica and "jungle" rhythms of Earthling, he was clearly ready to sing again, and 2000's ..hours was a strong return to trippy pop music. Heathen is a shocker because not only are the songs stronger than on hours, but his voice is sounding better than it has... well... ever.

The music of Heathen finds Bowie with one foot firmly planted in the shadowy, troubling techno of 1996's 1.Outside, while the other foot is kicking around in the inspired melodies and harmonies of Hunky Dory. Working with Tony Visconti as producer, the guy responsible for Bowie’s post-glam phase, the Mr. Stardust has found the best mix of Beatles-happy rock and Eno pyrotechnics he's ever found. This is, simply, the best sounding record of the year.

It is also Bowie's most lyrically direct record in ages. About halfway through an album laced with bittersweet nostalgia and apocalyptic vision, Bowie suddenly launches an all-out assault on the Almighty. Yep, this one's for God: a barrage of questions, laments, and yearnings. Basically, _Heathen_ is the cry of a disillusioned believer who wants to be given reason to keep on believing as the world ... and his faith ... crumble beneath him. 

Nothing remains, he declares in "Sunday," the bleak and anxious opener. Music and imagery paint a devastating picture of some great disaster. Something has exploded, collapsed, fallen apart. He is looking for bodies and, further, trying to make sense of it, trying to find some comfort. 

Look for the cause, or signs of life
Where the heat goes 
Look for the drifters
We should crawl under the bracken
Look for the shafts of light on the road
Where the heat goes
Everything has changed.

In the background, a chant rises that is both spooky and reassuring. 

In your fears seek only peace
In your fears seek only love

In view of the chaos, he concludes that we must destroy the monster we have become and hope for some kind of rebirth.

In your fear of what we have become
Take to the fire
Now we must burn all that we are
Rise together through these clouds
As on waves

"Rise together through these clouds” is a line that pre-dates and  mirrors Bruce Springsteen’s own hope and light found in the  darkness. Springsteen's The Rising is full of affirmations that  something does remain, spiraling up in the smoke of the  destruction to arrive at some kind of resolution and peace.  Bowie also adds, in a sort of desperate hope, that “All my trials, Lord, will be remembered”, before the song explodes  into an anxious crescendo of drums. (My biggest gripe  regarding this album is that this song, my personal favorite on the record, ends just when it gets going. That finale is exhilarating, and fades just as we’re brought to our feet.)

Next, there's a wicked, twisted rendition of the Pixies’ dark love letter “Cactus,” an appeal for an exchange with a lover who has either died or gone mad. The fetishistic anxiety of the singer, who desires “something you wore”… preferably a dress smeared with blood ... suggests the possibility that the singer wants back someone he himself destroyed. He is haunted by clues that form a sort of supernatural correspondence: “A letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead.”

Strange, specific nostalgia also runs through “Slip Away,” a yearning for the early 80s, for a sort of childlike innocence, full of references to specific joys and experiences, even favorite television personalities like kid-tv host Uncle Floyd:  “Twinkle twinkle, Uncle Floyd …How I wonder where you are?” 

“Slow Burn” bemoans the dying present and future as much as the past. Bowie, in full-throated angst, mourns that we are “so small in times such as these”, as the world spirals down into oblivion. Pete Townsend provides the groaning guitar lines. 

In the blistering,high-speed rock anthem “Afraid”, he admits his fears, and yet finds the only thing he has faith in is “the Beatles” (a nice twist on the lyrics to Lennon’s own “God” song), and an insistence that “my little soul has grown.” But the singer ends up revealing that he has bought into cultural lies, that if he can only get on television then he’ll have it made and he won’t be afraid anymore.

The album proceeds to move from apprehension of these horrors into a dialogue with God. Taken one by one, some may just sound like love songs. But in context, the language goes beyond that of alienated or separated lovers (“I’ve Been Waiting for You”), dysfunctional relationships, communication breakdowns, to the lament over the Other’s cruel sovereignty and the futility, or perhaps the illusion, of freewill.  

Feeling shut out, unable to comprehend God’s intentions or nature, he delivers a clear, basic appeal for an explanation in “I Would Be Your Slave”. The confession that gives the song its punch is that, if the singer could only meet God and receive understanding, he would submit. He cries out, “Open up your heart to me / Show me all you are / And I would be your slave.” But he is left disillusioned: “I don’t see the point of it/ No footprints in the sand / I”ll be you laugh out loud at me / at the chance to strike me down.”

In spite of the tension and bitterness that underlies the album, there are some delightful, humorous highlights. “Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft” gives us a spell from the angst, zipping along on an adrenaline rush of horns, drum loops, zippy guitars, and an Ed Woodish UFO tremolo on the fringe.  Even this high-spirited pop gem works in the context to reinforce his assurance that everywhere he goes, he is thinking of the Heavenly Other. A sort of religious weight underlies the silliest lines, even “I pulled down my sun visor / Boy, I really felt blue / I shot my space gun / and I thought about you.” 

“Everyone Says ‘Hi’” is an irresistible pop gem, a charming and sad love letter to a dear departed friend, or perhaps it’s the opposite—a letter from the great beyond. It’s one of the most contagiously singable Bowie songs in ages. But he never trivializes his subject. 

Despair overcomes him again in the follow-up, a journal entry meditation on despair—“5:15 The Angels Have Gone”. And as the album draws to its conclusion, the singer's troubles get the better of him again. He declares "I demand a better future, or I might just stop loving you." 

Taken as individual songs, these represent Bowie's strongest performances in decades.   There are intense vocal performances — from the powerful soul of “Slow Burn” to the snarling wit of “Gemini Spaceship”. Such artful instrumentation elevates these complaints to become a sort of flip-side to the humble prayers, affirmations, and humble pleas of U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. While Bono is crying out to a God he believes is benevolent, Bowie seems unsure if there is anyone listening at all, good or evil. 

In spite of this, Heathen becomes a vital, riveting work of soul-searching and confrontational prayer. It’s hard not to think of Milton’s Satan plunging from heaven, a rebel poisoned by pride. The frustrations are compelling, but it is also impossible to ignore Bowie insistence on blaming God for life's hardships. He spends no time pondering humankind's role in the destruction, nor does he consider what might be holding us back from utter chaos, or what efforts the Divine might have made to address the problem of evil. Love remains, in his perspective, a feeble gesture of humankind, never an endeavor of God himself.

Jeffrey Overstreet  12/4/2002
 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.   He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com

 
 
 

 

   
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