“Heathen” is David Bowie’s 25th studio album and was originally released on 11th June 2002.
Soon after the release of the “Hours” album, Bowie separated from his long time collaborator Reeves Gabrels, so the follow-up was always going to sound somewhat different to those of the recent past. The follow-up album was originally going to be the “Toy” project, an album of re-recorded versions of songs he had (mainly) written in the 60’s/early 70s prior to becoming the well-known rock icon. Remarkably (this is David Bowie remember), he couldn’t find a record label willing to release the album and the project was eventually shelved (it was “unofficially” released on the internet in 2011).
Although “Toy” was produced by Mark Plati, during the recording sessions, he became re-acquainted again with Tony Visconti, the producer responsible for many of his classic 70’s albums. They had last worked together way back in 1982 during the recording of the “Baal” EP and both thought why not get together and see if they can maybe produce the same magic in the studio again.
Visconti provided some of the string arrangements for the “Toy” project and some of the recordings became the catalyst for the new album to come. Some became reworked tracks on the album proper, while a number became B-Sides for the various singles from the album.
Recorded during an extended period from late 2000 through to early 2002, the “Heathen” recording period included the horrors of what happened on that fateful day on 11 September 2001. Although Bowie has said that none of the tracks directly related to the terrorist attack that occurred in his then home town of New York, I have always felt that much of the mood and atmosphere of the album (in tracks such as “Sunday” and “Slow Burn”) were influenced by those terrible events.
That said, the album is simply gorgeous and full to the brim with beautiful songs and wonderful vocal performances by Bowie. The Visconti influence is there, but his skill has always been to capture the “current” Bowie at his best and the production on this album is superb. The melancholy of David Bowie circa 2002 is captured perfectly, with a highly talented bunch of musicians (lead ably by Visconti on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and David Torn on guitar, with Bowie playing a number of instruments, usually a good sign) adding to what truly is a wonderful album.
It begins with “Sunday“, a quiet, atmospheric piece with a stunningly beautiful vocal by Bowie. If it’s not specifically about 11 September 2001, it’s certainly about someone who has survived a catastrophic, harrowing event in which nothing has changed, but everything has changed. The intro sets the scene:
We could run when the rain slows
Look for the cars or signs of life
Where the heat goes”
with a chant like quality to the whole thing.
It builds slowly from there, with touches of new instruments and voices coming in here and there, until the climatic finale with Bowie’s despairing “Everything has chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanged” and Matt Chamberlain’s wonderful drum work taking us out.
Next comes “Cactus“, a cover of the Pixies track from their album “Surfer Rosa”. Bowie was a huge fan of the Pixies and he does this song justice with a nice performance. Typical of the album, the softer/quieter tracks are often interspersed with harder/louder tracks throughout.
The next track “Slip Away” was one of those originating from the “Toy” sessions, under the original title “Uncle Floyd“. Although some at the time thought the song was a nod to Pink Floyd, whom Bowie loved particularly during the Syd Barrett era, it actually references “The Uncle Floyd Show” which was a children’s puppet show during the 70’s and beyond. Another slow, melancholic, atmospheric piece, it has a certain yearning for a bygone era which would have been perfect on “Toy” but also works rather well here on “Heathen”.
“Slow Burn” is my favourite track on Heathen, a wonderfully eerie rocker, with Pete Townsend providing some excellent guitar. Another song with 9/11 murmurings, it has all the elements of classic Bowie; a catchy, forceful rhythm, great lyrics, great vocals and that wonderfully unique instrumentation and arrangement quality that only Bowie can create. The lead off single from the album (but oddly not in the UK where it wasn’t released despite there being a number of different versions), it’s one of the classic Bowie songs that sadly most people would never have heard. A video of the song was recently released post his passing which is well worth watching. Watch video here.
“Afraid” is another “Toy” offshoot, although this time much of the backing tracks are essentially the same with the song remixed for “Heathen”. It’s perhaps one the weaker tracks here, although that’s always a relative term when it comes to Bowie. It has a nice guitar track throughout and again Bowie is in fine form, but it doesn’t have the distinctive quality of many of the other tracks here. It was a song often performed during the “Reality” tour and I think sounds much better live.
“I’ve Been Waiting For You” is another cover, this time from Neil Young’s debut album. It works rather well here, with Visconti’s bass dominating and with again some excellent musical arrangements and guitar work (this time from a guest appearance by David Grohl). Bowie sings it with obvious affection and so passes the “does it deserve to be on the album” test. Released as a single in Canada only.
“I Would Be Your Slave” has a catchy rhythm and string like arrangements, but it’s Bowie’s vulnerable vocal performance that lifts this song to a higher status. A plea to a potential loved one, that Bowie promises he would be dedicated to if they only opened up, you get the sense the relationship is ultimately doomed. It’s typical Bowie pulling the emotional heart-strings.
“I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship” is an absolute riot. The third cover on the album, this is a song by “The Legendary Stardust Cowboy”, a key influence in the making of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie sings the song in his most camp voice and it really is quite hilarious. Although much of the album has a sad melancholy, this just lightens up the mood of the whole piece. There really is hope for mankind, it just requires us to leave the planet and take a ride on a spaceship. “Weeeelllllllll” indeed !!
“5:15: The Angels Have Gone” is another highlight, just a truly beautiful song. About separation, both physically from a foreign town and emotionally from a failed relationship, it just has everything one can want from a great song. Musically, it’s simple but also has that sprinkle of Bowie magic in the touches here and there and in the slightly odd, drum based rhythm.
The next track “Everyone Says Hi” continues the high standard with a more uplifting accompaniment to the previous song. Here, the theme is again about leaving, but from the perspective that everyone misses you and that if you ever want to return, the old life is there waiting for you (all your friends, Mum, Dad, the dog…). Released as a single, it came out in a vast array of options, which made it really expensive for us Bowie fans.
“A Better Future” is a little flat and plodding in comparison to what has come before. It has a nice enough rhythm and keyboard based hook, but Bowie’s deadpan vocal and the lack of any great emotion or change in musical structure makes it one of the weaker tracks here. Somewhat forgettable.
It all ends with the title track “Heathen (The Rays)“. With a brooding arrangement and basic drum backbeat, it rather nicely rounds off the album. It has a religous like quality, perhaps an older man’s “Word On A Wing”:
“Steel on the skyline
Sky made of glass
Made for a real world
All things must pass
Waiting for something
Looking for someone
Is there no reason?
Have I stared too long?”
Wow, what a great album and this from a then 55 year old who had already achieved so much.
Another tracks worth mentioning from around this period:
“Conversation Piece“. This was released as a bonus track on a second CD that come with limited editions of the album when first released. From the “Toy” sessions, the song originally dates way back to being the B-Side of Bowie’s early single “The Prettiest Star” (featuring Marc Bolan) and is an early indication of the genius that is Bowie. It’s an early masterpiece and one of the most beautiful songs he’s ever written. This version is not quite as stunning as the original, but that wonderful sense of vulnerability is still there.
“Wood Jackson” featured as the B-Side to the “Slow Burn” single. Sounding really really sad, it’s a truly eerie piece about a clearly troubled musician who can’t quite get a grip on life. Believed by some to be based in part on the musician Daniel Johnston. For those occasions when you might feel a little lonely.
“Shadow Man” is possibly my favourite piece from this whole period. Another early song of Bowie’s dating back to 1971 and beyond, recorded again during the “Toy” sessions, this is such a great song. Previously never officially released (although an early version recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions has been available on bootleg albums for some time), this is just brilliant and this version is possibly Bowie’s finest vocal performance in his whole post 1990’s era. This version is so damn good, that it was included in the “Nothing Has Changed” compilation released in 2014. Mainly piano based, with a quiet arrangement, Bowie’s voice is front and centre and is just stunning. Appeared on some B-Sides of the “Slow Burn” single and on the bonus disc of the re-released limited edition of the album.
“Safe” is an outtake from the “Heathen” sessions, it’s another brooding song but with a much more expansive arrangement, with squealing guitars and louder, anguished vocals. It’s not as strong as much of what made it onto “Heathen”, so you can see why it was dropped. Again featured on the bonus disc with the re-released version of the album.
“When The Boys Come Marching Home” is another “Heathen” outtake and perhaps the weakest track of the lot. With a nondescript arrangement and clear military musings (including the drum beat), Bowie would tackle this topic far more impressively on “The Next Day” album. For now, this track is nothing more than a curiosity.
“You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” dates all the way back to 1966 when Bowie was a total unknown and the lead singer of “Davy Jones & The Lower Third” when this song was released as a single (the last single before becoming David Bowie). It was a flop then and although this version from the “Toy” sessions can be viewed as an improvement, it’s still not the best song in the Bowie cannon. An interesting piece, but I actually prefer the original with the fresh sounding Bowie vocal of its time. Included as a B-Side on some versions of the “Heathen” singles and as a track on the bonus disk of the re-released album.
“Baby Loves That Way” was originally the B-Side to the single “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” by “Davy Jones & The Lower Third” and was also re-recorded for “Toy”. Here, the original is much the better version, with this having all the life and energy of the original drained away. One can see why the “Toy” concept was rejected by record companies based on this track. Again, included as a B-Side on some versions of the “Heathen” singles and as a track on the bonus disk of the re-released album.
The album cover (which I’ve used as the background to my computers ever since) is certainly up there as one of Bowie’s most distinctive covers, featuring Bowie’s “out of this world” eyes.
Overall, “Heathen” was received positively by both the music critics and by the public at large. It reached No 5 in the UK charts, No 14 in the US and even made it to No 9 here in Australia. Not bad from someone releasing their 25th studio album and who couldn’t be bothered recording any videos to help promote the thing.
Bowie did tour the album on a somewhat limited basis between June and October 2002 in both Europe and the US (but again not in Australia goddammit). The first couple of dates included playing both the “Heathen” and “Low” albums in their entirety before the tour proper started (how cool would that have been !!). Many of the “Heathen” songs were also covered during his final “Reality” world tour.
Listening to the album now, it really has aged rather well and is typical of much of Bowie’s output. A little ahead of its day, with a lot of brilliance and with very much a timeless quality that one can forever fondly listen to.
It was certainly a cause of some excitement at the time that Bowie and Tony Visconti were back working together again after so many years. In the end, Tony Visconti would turn out to produce all of Bowie’s future albums. Sadly, there were only three more to come, “Reality” released in 2003 and after a 10 year hiatus, the superb “The Next Day” and “Blackstar” albums.
Both the latter albums have yet to appear in my list, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Best Tracks: “Sunday”, “Slow Burn”, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone”, “Shadow Man”