Bowie remains the greatest living rock artist, even if what he does isn’t rock so much as swing, think a bit, then swing again. Heathen really was a return to form?even objective people thought so. Reunited with Tony Visconti for the first time since Scary Monsters, he threw aside his well-intended but increasingly flailing attempts at ‘relevant’ sonic shifts and stepped back into himself. He’s much more dignified when he’s irrelevant, unique, alien. Heathen was alternately broody and buoyant, imaginative without being esoteric, and filled with fine songs. Wisely, Bowie’s stayed with Visconti-and with the same band-for his 26th LP, written and recorded quickly this year in New York. And while it’s very much a rock album?”a bit thrusty” is his own description?it kicks in a very ‘now’ way (this ain’t Tin Machine). Over its stomping drums and squalling guitars he drapes lovely, left-handed songs, rich with unexpected angles, daring detours and words which muse over mortality yet emerge seeming upbeat. Reality is lyrically mournful; musically euphoric. It’s pop, frisky pop, but with plenty of couplets about how everything falls away.
“New Killer Star” begins; a riff, a pulse, a yelp in the voice as he nails it: “Oh my nuclear baby/Oh my idiot trance/All my idiot questions/Let’s face the music and dance…” He’s racing from or towards something, with a hint of Ballard’s Crash. “Never Get Old” plays with his past personae; chunky funk, it ends like a spooky fairground ride. “There’s never gonna be enough money, there’s never gonna be enough drugs, and I’m never ever gonna get old.” The album’s littered with both quips and sighs about time passing. There are two covers, Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo
Picasso” (in the manner of the Pixies) and George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some” (in the manner of Ronnie Spector, giving it the big yodel). “The Loneliest Guy” eases the tempo, quivers in like early Roxy, has a narrator denying his loneliness despite giveaway phrases like “pictures on my hard drive”.
“Looking For Water”?”I can’t live in this cage, can’t eat this candy”?thuds in again with braggadocio, but there’s a sort of a cappella moment which recalls those blissful Young Americans peaks, and the lines: “I lost God in a New York minute/I don’t know about you, but my heart’s not in it”. “Days” is a bit plinky-plonk, but both “She’ll Drive The Big Car” and “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon” are schizo, ferocious but fractured, the former like “The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan” rewritten by Iggy, the latter a scratching, twisting, martial “Heroes”. Both should enter the all-time Bowie pantheon, given that’s a pretty huge building.
The title track is heavy, pounding?perhaps, like “Hallo Spaceboy”, too much so?and cranium-piercing. “Now my death is just a sad song” begs reference to his Brel days, and, “I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong/Now I’m back where I started from” contradicts the pierrot who’d never done good things or bad things. Any lingering scepticism is sucked away by the startling, jazzy snake that is “Bring Me The Disco King”, which he’s been tampering with for a decade.
Nearly eight minutes long, it’s like Sinatra or Scott Walker tilting at Brubeck’s “Take Five”, Mike Garson on avant-piano, many-limbed percussion; our man reminiscing about “killing time in the ’70s… rivers of perfumed limbs, good time girls” before fearing invisibility and our ultimate “dance through the fire”. Ah, it was a very good year. It’s a very, very good sexy-angst album. For real.