It's too easy to write him off, though the temptation's there; has been for damned near two decades, since he asked us to dance and promptly strapped on two left feet. Ah, but what the realist calls "murky ambition" the apologist deems "experimental victory." So, then, what makes Heathen Bowie's finest hour (51:40, actually) since Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)? Assume it's because he rounded up its producer (Tony Visconti, sorely missed) and its Special Guest (Pete Townshend, laying down a "Slow Burn" here), but push past initial conjectures to the deeper revelation: Bowie, stripped of disguise and self-disgust, is at his best when playing only Bowie. Or maybe that's playing at, since three songs here began as the property of others: "Cactus" (the Pixies), "I've Been Waiting for You" (Neil Young) and "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft" (by Lubbock's own Legendary Stardust Cowboy, from whom Bowie once nicked a middle name).
The covers resonate nicely without a whiff of novelty of burnout (no Pin-Ups), especially the old Young rendered fresh and aching, but the highlights are Bowie's own. Opener "Sunday," with space-oddity effects layered over keyboard choirs, is haunted by an accidental specter: "Nothing remains," Bowie begins, before he's drowned out by the echoes of September 11 ("look for the cars or signs of life/where the heat goes...everything has changed"), though the song was recorded well before that day. It's uphill from there, more or less, as Bowie, acting as both nostalgist and sage, plays with old puppets from a lost TV show, insists he "won't be afraid anymore," hopes we "don't stay in a bad place where they don't care how you are" and, toward disc's end, promises "A Better Future." Then it all comes crashing down, again, only this time as much in celebration as in mourning: "Steel on the skyline/Sky made of glass/Made for a real world/All things must pass." Just not Bowie, not yet.
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