1. Sunday: Masterpiece #32. A monster of an opening track laced with spooky synth and a sombre dreamlike production, Sunday becomes a disturbing incantation that builds into a warm chorus-scape. It’s simply the best track on a Bowie album in years. The live arrangement a la 2004 with Earl Slick’s towering guitar solo is breathtaking. 10.0
2. Cactus: Pointless Pixies cover, Bowie doesn’t bring a lot to the table on this one except informing us he is a fan. He does however play everything on this track except bass. 4.5
3. Slip Away: Incredibly slow, sad and nostalgic track, Bowie plays the antique stylophone for the first time since Space Oddity. The fretless bass works well but the lyrics defy explication. The song dates back to the 60s about Uncle Floyd and his puppet sidekick for some reason. 5.0
4. Slow Burn: This song is about the slow destruction of the world and possesses quite the swagger. It’s a moody and bouncy number with a nice bass/sax pop combo that vaguely recalls the Pin Ups sound. Some nice guitar work from Pete Townshend (last heard on Scary Monsters’ fine Because You’re Young) doing his best Teenage Wildlife, Bowie’s emotive rumble dominates. 6.5
5. Afraid: This builds well through emotional intensity alone and a high-speed jolt of strumming and strings it’s a strong new wave-ish rocker. Like Slip Away this was originally recorded for the unreleased Toy non-album (as it is a reworked older song) but reshaped, works well in this set especially with the addition of a cello. 6.0
6. I’ve Been Waiting for You: A jacked-up Neil Young cover. Bowie takes this unremarkable Neil track (off his unremarkable 1968 self-titled debut) to a new plateau, the earthiness of the original replaced by an other-worldly alienation. Ironically the Pixies covered this back in the day too. 5.0
7. I Would Be Your Slave: Magnificent string section hovering unsettlingly above a metronomic drum pattern, electronic pulses and gender-neutral lyrics, Bowie puts in a moving and heartfelt performance and bringing a confessional tone to this pretty track. 7.0
8. I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship: Covering a track from Bowie’s 60s muse The Legendary Stardust Cowboy this is fast-paced, tuneless, electro pop number featuring frenetic beats and dark swirling synths with Bowie’s amusingly detached vocals. 6.0
9. 5.15 The Angels have Gone: Underrated track, melodically exquisite if a little slight. The verse’s melody and guitar lick simply gorgeous, the misty-eyed nostalgia finds Bowie in a reflective mood not for the first time on the album, let down by a bland-out refrain “Weeeeee never talk anymore”. Nice drums all-round. 7.0
10. Everyone Says Hi: A feeling of homesick melancholy cloaks this jolly little melody with a fine chorus and middle-eight that is something of a nod to the charming Absolute Beginners (8.0) from 1985. Worthy single materiel. 7.0
11. A Better Future: A summation of an on-going internal spiritual dialogue, it’s a simple hypnotic and relatively catchy melody but is repetitive and a low point of the album. 5.0
12. Heathen (The Rays): Masterpiece #33. One of the first tracks written for the album, the ominous militaristic rhythms of the ghostly title track is quite a wonderful piece of bleak songwriting and display enormous emotional depth and quality. A welcome return to brilliant ambient menace. 10.0
ALBUM RATING: 7.0
VERDICT: While not a complete return to the form of the 70s, Heathen is a huge comeback for an artist who was seemingly fading away amid an avalanche of indifference. The youthful brilliance and trend setting finesse of his early work is long gone, but in its place is a mature assured sound of acceptance, nonchalant charm and solid songs. Out goes the heavy industrial sounds and the gratuitous guitar noodling of Reeves Gabrels (as did the many co-write credits – Bowie was writing on his own again) and in comes a classic rocking guitar and saxophone sound, doom-laden lyrics, and multi-layered backing vocals. Reuniting with producer Tony Visconti they have come up with a string of interesting arrangements enhancing the timely subject matter to often moving effect. Heathen contains Bowie’s artistic leanings within a pleasing pop framework if sometimes less than brilliant materiel. Bowie finally formed his own record label (ISO) just prior to the release of Heathen which gave him renewed artistic freedom allowing him to write, record and release whatever he liked. This was particularly welcome after the unreleased indignity of (Virgin’s) Toy.
NEXT: “Never ever gonna get old”.