CD of the week: David Bowie, Heathen

It may be David Bowie's 27th studio album, but it's also one of his best. By Alexis Petridis

David Bowie Heathen
(Iso) ****

Earlier this month, David Bowie took the surprising step of penning an article for a national newspaper, defending his taste in music. As artistic director of this year's Meltdown festival at the South Bank centre, he had been riled by suggestions that his selections - including Suede, the Dandy Warhols, Coldplay and the Divine Comedy - were middle-of-the road. "My choice of billing reflects both my populist and fringe tastes in music," harrumphed a clearly aggrieved Thin White Duke, accusing his detractors of being fashion victims.

It is difficult to know where to place your sympathies. On one hand, Bowie's ire over the mockery aimed at Meltdown is understandable. Bowie has done more to introduce the avant-garde to a mainstream rock audience than any artist since the Beatles. The journalist mocking the loudest, meanwhile, was Stuart Maconie, an omnipresent talking head on TV nostalgia shows. It must gall to be told you're not edgy enough by a man who makes his living cracking jokes about space hoppers and clackers.

On the other hand, Maconie's criticism was largely accurate. With its preponderance of unchallenging indie bands, Bowie's Meltdown carries a whiff of the Reading Festival. He made his reputation crashing through musical boundaries and gleefully stamping on sexual taboos, while pretending to be a decadent gay saxophone-playing cokehead alien pierrot with an interest in fascism and the occult. It's a bit disappointing when he suddenly reveals a love for Coldplay, the musical equivalent of a semi-detached bungalow in Weybridge.

The Meltdown saga illustrates the dichotomy of Bowie's career to date. After 10 years of staggering invention, his recording career went hopelessly off the rails in the 1980s. Dreadful albums such as Tonight foolishly indulged in slick, shallow pop. The result was critical opprobrium. In the 1990s, he attempted to relocate his sense of adventure, trying virtually everything bar strapping a pair of cymbals to his knees and busking in the tube: techno, TV soundtracks, unlistenable Brian Eno collaborations, even hanging out with drum'n'bass nitwit Goldie. The result was minimal sales. He has managed just one Top 10 hit in the past 16 years. As evidenced by the Meltdown controversy, people want Bowie to be weird. But not that weird.

The one thing Bowie has consistently failed to do in recent years - and what he apparently did so effortlessly throughout the 1970s - is contain his outre leanings within a crowd-pleasing pop framework. Which is where Heathen, his 27th studio album, comes in. Heathen achieves a balance noticeably lacking in Bowie's output of the past 20 years. At one extreme, it boasts a perplexing "concept" (apparently it involves "One who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any of God's presence in his life. He is the 21st-century man" - that's that cleared up, then), and lyrics that defy explication: "Don't forget to keep your head on, twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd," runs the chorus of Slip Away. At the other, it features Everybody Says Hi, a lovely song on which Bowie contemplates his son Joe's adulthood in the most prosaic terms imaginable: "I'd like to get a letter, like to know what's what, hope the weather's good and it's not too hot."

Bowie and co-producer Tony Visconti have come up with a string of fascinating arrangements. The title track surges erratically. Pete Townshend contributes noisy scattershot guitar to Slow Burn. I Would Be Your Slave features a string section hovering unsettlingly above a metronomic drum pattern and electronic pulses. Yet the settings never overshadow the songs: strident, confident, lush with melodies. A Better Future is insanely hummable, I Would Be Your Slave romantic and weird in equal measure. If the cover of the Pixies' Cactus tries too hard to capture the spooked intensity of the original, his version of Neil Young's I've Been Waiting for You is subjected to perfect Bowie-isation, the earthiness of the original replaced by other- worldly alienation.

It would be wrong to herald Heathen as a complete return to 1970s form. It lacks the thrilling sense of artistic tumult that marks Station to Station, Low or 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), albums on which ideas appear to burst forth, barely marshalled. But those were records made by a decadent gay saxophone-playing cokehead alien pierrot with an interest in fascism and the oc cult. Heathen is the work of a multi-millionaire 55-year-old father of two.

Packed with fantastic songs, liberally sprinkled with intriguing touches, Heathen is the sound of a man who has finally worked out how to grow old with a fitting degree of style. When you consider the state of his peers, that is a unique achievement in itself. It is also a more exciting and adventurous record than anything produced by the bands he has chosen for Meltdown, most of whom are half his age. A backhanded compliment maybe, but a compliment none the less.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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