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David Bowie: Heathen


David Bowie

Album: Heathen
Label: ISO/Columbia

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Though he once invited investors to buy stock in his old songs, David Bowie still issues periodic reminders that he remains the CEO of Bowiecorp. In 1999, he released Hours, reportedly the product of a year spent listening to nothing but his old music. The result sounded a bit too studied, like a failed attempt at Hunky Dory, version 2.0. Somehow, Bowie evades the same trap while still looking to the past on Heathen. Reuniting Bowie with Tony Visconti (who produced his work from the time he abandoned glam for soul through 1980, when full-scale pop stardom beckoned), Heathen revisits the music of his memorable second act without sounding beholden to it. A graceful marriage of synthesizers, guitars, and post-modern croon, Heathen summons the same air of romantic unease found on albums like Station To Station and Bowie's late-'70s collaborations with Brian Eno. Though reminiscent of the past, it still seems remarkably current. At times, Bowie has had trouble coming to terms with the music he inspired, but on Heathen, he sounds at peace sounding like himself, occasional contemporary electronic flourishes and all. Frank Black probably didn't have him in mind when he wrote the Pixies' "Cactus," but on one of the album's two covers, Bowie eases himself into the song, making it sound eerier than the desperate original. The same tone—half need, half resignation—carries over through the album's opening tracks, taking hold in the Pete Townshend-assisted first single "Slow Burn" and reaching a crescendo in a cover of Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting For You" before giving way to a second half filled with moments of urban dislocation and unsettling grace. Bowie has taken on many personas throughout his career, and here he sounds like the man who never quite finished falling to earth, offering postcards from undisclosed locations on "Everyone Says 'Hi'," getting stuck in a moment on "5:15 The Angels Have Gone," and winding the album down with a title track that drifts through a landscape with a "sky made of glass" before trailing off into nowhere. If Bowie hadn't made shape-shifting a trademark, Heathen might be called a return to form. As is, it just seems like a return, and a welcome one.