By curating this year’s Meltdown festival at London’s Southbank Centre, a role previously filled by Nick Cave, Scott Walker and John Peel, David Bowie is asserting himself as an influential artist – as if he needed to. The release of Heathen, Bowie’s first album in three years, marks an important crossroads for him as he makes a concerted effort to transform from musician of note into musical godfather.
The album features guests The Who‘s Pete Townshend and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, and cover versions of songs by Pixies and Neil Young. The producer is Tony Visconti, arguably the best of all Bowie producers, clearly on hand to help rekindle the good times. In marketing terms this album makes a big noise – that Bowie remains one of pop’s most successful and inventive chameleons, that everybody loves him, that he’s back and that he means business.
Visconti’s production is slick and assured, providing the best backdrop to a Bowie record since Heroes, and it is instantly obvious within the first few seconds of the post-rock Sunday, which starts out as one of the best opening tracks to a Bowie album in years. It begins by using looped synth sounds to create peaceful atmospherics, and quietly builds into an impressive beast of a track. Sunday has some great harmonic ideas, but fades out just as it’s getting interesting.
It gives way to the first of three cover versions on Heathen, Pixies’ Cactus, which the changeling handles with due care and attention. It sounds like it’d be great live – and is one of the album’s highlights. Tellingly, Bowie plays everything on the track except bass, which comes courtesy of the producer. Bowie also claims credit for the synth and piano work for the balance of the album, proving the maxim that he’s more than just a pretty face.
Of the covers, Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting For You is arguably the best, given riotous guitar treatment by Dave Grohl. Gemini Spacecraft, by Bowie’s ’60s muse Stardust Cowboy is great fun too, with Bowie’s spaceman alter-ego getting full rein with galactic lyrics.
Elsewhere, Slip Away sounds like a reject from the soundtrack of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, full of ’70s glam decadence and all executed with style and pizzazz. And Everyone Says Hi gives most twentysomething singer-songwriters a run for their money and shows this chameleon really can turn his hand to anything.
Pete Townshend’s contribution to the record is guitar on Slow Burn, a track which combines a Brian May guitar sound with tambourine to end up sounding like Queen doing a Christmas carol. Heavily synthesised vocal layering doesn’t entirely get rid of Bowie’s characteristic over-the-top vibrato, but the production enhances rather than smothers.
I Would Be Your Slave works less well, sounding like Massive Attack‘s Unfinished Sympathy mixed with the burblings of a coffee machine, while 5.15 The Angels Have Gone might be what you’d end up with if you put Enya together with Julio Iglesias and is one to skip. Then there’s A Better Future which is, for the most part, just irritating.
But Bowie’s songwriting on Heathen is generally solid, if rarely groundbreaking, and just about always manages to deliver the goods. The overall effect is of a musician talented enough to recognise his own deficiencies and to know who to draft in to cover them up. Bowie is certainly not past it, and with Heathen he suggests that we’re quite some way from hearing the last of him.