Friday, 29 May 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 8

And so to the final trio. I think the series ran out of steam after the Berlin trilogy, at least as far as most of my audience's interest goes anyway. Some of you have stuck with Bowie since his 'golden years' though and been rewarded with some cracking music that is often overlooked. This last bunch also has some great stuff on it, giving this series - and Dave's career so far - a strong finish.

Heathen (2002)

Bowie had recorded a new album at the turn of the Millennium which included a mix of new material and new recordings of some of his lesser-known 60s songs. Entitled 'Toy', it should have seen the light of day in 2001, but due to various label scheduling issues, it was put back a number of times. In the meantime, work on 'Heathen' started.

'Heathen' saw the rekindling of an old partnership as Tony Visconti was brought in to produce his first Bowie album since 'Scary Monsters'. The magic shone through in the finished recording as 'Heathen' was one of the most confident-sounding albums Bowie had made for decades. The final product included a few tracks recorded for 'Toy', but everything fits together so well. Sunday opens the record in a somewhat understated way with the high guitar notes ringing behind a layer of backing vocals while Bowie's resonant voice controls the proceedings. Electronic beats take over the reins halfway through and the song becomes a fitting bridge between late-90s Bowie and the next decade.

Slip Away is one of those old tracks re-recorded for 'Toy' (originally entitled Uncle Floyd). It's an undoubted highlight. Afraid is a rocker and one of the best tracks in his 21st century canon. Slow Burn (featuring Pete Townshend) is another superb track, though admittedly an odd choice for lead single (but then, we were very used to Bowie doing that), while Everyone Says 'Hi!' is a glorious pop song that stands out as the most optimistic moment on an otherwise upbeat yet gloomy record (at least in terms of its lyrical content). The ominous thing about 'Heathen' is the fact its completion came just after the September 11th attacks in New York. Many have mistakenly thought this record is Bowie's reaction to those events, but the truth is it was almost done and dusted by then. What he wrote was influenced by what he felt about New York over a period of decades, yet it seemed eerily prophetic.

The covers are well worth a mention too. It was no secret that Bowie was a Pixies fan, but to tackle one of their songs could have been a risky move. Fortunately his take on Cactus is more than decent, his voice as detained prisoner reading a letter written to his sweetheart is never less than convincing. Dave Grohl pops up with some loud guitar on I've Been Waiting For You, a Neil Young song also covered by Pixies; and on I Took A Trip on A Gemini Spaceship, Bowie sings the lowest note he's ever recorded.

Looking back as Bowie sings "I demand a better future" it's surprising people have tended to overlook 'Heathen' when mentioning his finest work. There isn't a bad track on 'Heathen'. It was nominated for the inaugural Mercury Music Prize and was his highest charting album in the States for nearly 20 years, making the top ten around the world. Whether his future turned out to be better than he wanted - you'll have to ask him, but 'Heathen' was a pretty high bar to set for himself.

8.2 / 10


Reality (2003)

A year after 'Heathen' marked a resurgence in critical acclaim for Bowie, 'Reality' hit the shelves. His creative juices were truly flowing, especially when you consider there was actually an unreleased album sitting in the archives as well - that would make three albums in three years.

The first thing to note about 'Reality' is that it is Bowie's most rock-fuelled record for decades. There's less use of electronics and more reliance on the classic guitar-bass-drums setup. That doesn't make it any less interesting than previous efforts though. New Killer Star has a host of catchy riffs and hooks that belie the ominous post-9/11 undertones in the lyrics. Never Get Old is utterly superb and features one of Bowie's finest vocals. The Loneliest Guy is a plaintive, minimal piano-led piece which is possibly the saddest song he's ever written. Fall Dog Bombs The Moon was one of the first tracks written for the album in the lead up to the Iraq War. It's one of his angriest, most political lyrics to date. Then there's Bring Me The Disco King, a song that has its roots back in the 70s and had been recorded for both 'Black Tie White Noise' and 'Earthling' before finally making it onto 'Reality' in a slow lounge jazz style.

I'm a fan of the cover of Jonathan Richman's Pablo Picasso. It's the most fun-sounding track on the record and it always cheers me up when I hear it. Can't really say the same for his take on George Harrison's Try Some Buy Some though. There's little effort to modernise it to fit in with the rest of the album so stands out for all the wrong reasons. The title track is also a bit of an odd one, coming across as something of a throwback to his Tin Machine days. It's loud, brash and lacking much in the way of a decent tune.

Overall though, 'Reality' rates quite highly, and with the great man on such a creative spurt, we felt we wouldn't have to wait too long for his next offering.

7.8 / 10


The Next Day (2013)
There are no doubt numerous reasons why Bowie was virtually silent for a decade following 'Reality'. The mammoth tour he undertook was hugely successful, both financially and critically - it was hard to follow. It may also have played a part in his subsequent health issues. Whatever, talk of imminent death, retirement and all the other rumours that abounded were proved miles off key when, from out of nowhere, Bowie dropped 'The Next Day'.

Leaving the ingenious way in which it was launched to one side, it would have been too easy to either laud it to the heavens or rip it to pieces. As it turns out, judging 'The Next Day' purely on the quality of its contents and how it holds together as an album, it is completely worthy of the acclaim it received. It's a very, very good record.

The title track opens proceedings and it's a scorcher; Bowie in full flow, like he'd never been away: "Here I am / Not quite dying." Oh yes, he's very much alive. The fact is, 'The Next Day' contains some of his finest work of the last couple decades. Love Is Lost continues the dark, ominous moods that had been present in Bowie's music for years, while Valentine's Day is the album's poppiest moment yet still hits the spot (much like Everyone Says 'Hi!' did on 'Heathen'). The shock comeback single Where Are We Now marks a period of introspection and refers to his Berlin years, while I'd Rather Be High is a comment on war, from Vietnam to the Middle East, from the soldier's perspective - a response to Fall Dog Bombs The Moon from 'Reality' perhaps?

There are also quirky experimental moments too, but the results vary. Dirty Boys is immense fun with its offbeat sax-led rhythms; If You Can See Me however is all over the place and a tad irritating. In fact, if there is one criticism that could be levelled at 'The Next Day', it's that it is a couple of tracks too long. There is a bit of a lull just after the halfway point. As well as If You Can See Me, I wouldn't really miss Boss Of Me or Dancing Out In Space. It does get back on track towards the end though. The opening riff on Set The World On Fire, and its searing guitar solo, sound like they were lifted from something off 'Diamond Dogs'; 'tis a thunderous stomper of a song. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is a glorious ballad that could have worked on 'Ziggy Stardust', and the closing drone of Heat could have been a highlight of 'Low'.

The Bowie of 2013 was far from the ailing old codger we were beginning to fear he had become. If 'The Next Day' is anything to go by, he's as fresh and exciting as ever, and the few new songs that have emerged since contain more ideas than many bands young enough to be his grandchildren will have in their entire lives. How long he'll make us wait before he decides to give us some more only Bowie knows, but if it's another decade, I'm pretty sure it'll be worth the wait.

8 / 10



  1. Yes, yes and yes. I'll take these three over the three from part 7 in this series every time.

  2. 3 crackers - agree the next day could do with a bit of editing - also some of the "extra tracks" on the expanded version could have replaced a couple on the core lp - but all quibbles
    I really like Reality .. except try some buy some , one of the worst things he has done.

  3. The Robster - I've Started So I'll Finish

  4. This is Bowie at his immensely artistic best. From songs to production it all works for me so well on Heathen, Reality and The Next Day. Everyone Say 'Hi' and Afraid are The Man at his best on Heathen. That Bring Me The Disco King FINALLY saw the light of day on Reality alone makes it a must have album. BMTDK is probably my favorite Bowie track of the past 25 years. Then there is the amazingly managed and curated The Next Day. For me there isn't a single low point on the album. It's a labor of love between all involved and it shows.
    But Bowie isn't EVER going to give us what he wants...this is proven by Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) from the latest hits compilation and its b-side 'Tis A Pity She's A Whore. Freeform Jazz and Post Rock WILL have a place in his art. I'm just waiting for more!