David Bowie released Heathen on 11th June 2002, my last day of University. Three years earlier, on October 4th 1999, he had released “Hours…”, which was my first day of University. Between them, coincidentally, they bookmark this period of my life perfectly.
Throughout the 1990’s, many music journalists had been quick to declare each new Bowie album as “his best since Scary Monsters”. However, with Heathen there was the greatest concensus: this album stands alongside Bowie’s very best work. While for me, 1.Outside remains his greatest album of the last 20 years, Heathen comes a very close second. 1.Outside was a sprawling, experimental concept album; Heathen is a much tighter unit, probably best described musically as “art-rock”, a fusion of Scary Monsters, “Hours…” and Low. At the time of its release, it was nominated for The Mercury Music prize (losing out to Ms Dynamite’s “A Little Deeper”) and more recently was voted amongst the top 200 albums of Q magazine’s lifetime.
Heathen is an album about atmosphere. Like so many of his albums before, the themes of fear and angst run throughout. “Nothing remains, we could run when the rain slows, look for the cars or signs of life” sings Bowie on the opening lines to “Sunday”, Heathen’s opening song, thematically reminiscent of “Five Years” from 1972’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or “Future Legend” from 1974’s Diamond Dogs. The equally bleak “Heathen” closes the album: “You’ll say you’ll leave me. And when the sun is low, and the rays high, I can see it now, I can feel it die”. Part of the genius of this album is how Bowie lets the listener paint their own pictures about what is going on: “Waiting for something… Looking for someone… Is there no reason? Have I stared too long? ”
The release of Heathen was preceded by the single” Slow Burn”, which features Pete Townshend on guitar and for which Bowie received a Grammy nomination for best vocal performance. However, it is “Everyone Says Hi” – one of Bowie’s best ever songs – which was to be the album’s hit single and which remains (to date) his last UK top 20 chart hit. It is a song about the loss of someone special (although we don’t know who and we don’t know where they’ve gone) and it contains a lyric and a vocal performance which are amongst Bowie’s most raw and emotional.
Bowie often likes to include at least one cover version on his albums – this album contains three: “Cactus” by The Pixies, “I’ve Been Waiting For You” by Neil Young and “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft” by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (who’s name formed part of the inspiration for the character of Ziggy Stardust). Each is a great addition.
It’s now approaching 10 years since the release of Heathen and the album has lost now of it’s relevance, emotion or power. For me, the album has a special place in the Bowie canon as it was while playing live shows to promote it that I first got to see Bowie live (in Manchester, 2002, supported by The Divine Comedy and Suede). Anyone who thought David Bowie had stopped making great music some years ago really needs to give Heathen a listen.
Songs to download:
- Slip Away
- Slow Burn
- Everyone Says Hi