David Bowie: Heathen (ISO/Columbia)

Heathen is the sound of Bowie firing on all cylinders.

David Bowie has a pretty darn good life. He’s one of the most respected figures in modern music, he’s married to a supermodel, he’s got two healthy kids (a daughter born recently), and he made millions on a clever investment deal whereby bonds could be purchased against future sales of his past catalog. Great to see our rock heroes happy, but many of Bowie’s classic ’70s albums (including Station to Station and the Low-Heroes-Lodger trilogy made with Brian Eno) were at least partly the result of inner torment, alienation, and the rampant drug use of the day. When things started going better for the former “thin white duke,” the music wasn’t necessarily compelling, as witnessed by much of Bowie’s output after 1980’s Scary Monsters. But he started experimenting and doing adventurous things again on 1995’s underrated Outside, and the more recent EarthlingHours had their moments. Now comes Heathen, which reunites Bowie with famed producer Tony Visconti, the man behind the boards for most of those essential ’70s recordings. And it’s simply a fascinating, beautifully constructed work, Bowie’s finest in a (diamond) dog’s age.

Without repeating the past, Bowie sounds respectful of, and newly inspired by, the reputation of his previous classics. The spooky opener, “Sunday,” with a skin-prickling guitar figure, has a somber tone befitting the post 9/11 world, even though it was written before (Bowie’s always been more than a little precognizant); both this one and the classic, aptly-titled “Slow Burn” are reminiscent of the Heroes era. “Burn” also benefits from a guest appearance by Pete Townshend, who contributes some searing guitar. “Afraid” and “I Would Be Your Slave” harken back a bit to Ziggy Stardust days. There are three inspired covers: a crunching version of The Pixies’ “Cactus,” a surprising but generally faithful reading of Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You” (from his ’69 debut) on which Dave Grohl appears, and “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” a weird, appropriately spaced-out (but rhythmically charged here) song by outsider musician the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

Two of the best songs come toward the end of the album, Bowie’s own “5:15 The Angels Have Come” and “A Better Future.” The former features softly luminous keyboards and a beautifully nuanced vocal. In fact, let it be said that Bowie’s singing throughout Heathen is vigorous and expressive—he clearly feels connected to this material in a manner that you can hear. “A Better Future” is a deceptively simple rocker, with Bowie harmonizing with himself and singing lyrics that could be read as the pleading of youth (Bowie standing in for his young daughter?): “Please don’t tear this world asunder/Please take back this fear we’re under/I demand a better future—” It’s a poignant song, followed by the introspective, ambient-flavored title cut.

The album is emotionally stirring, making even a long-time fan feel that spark of rediscovery, and it grows stronger and richer with each spin. Bowie has clearly been ch-ch-changing— something he’s done, of course, throughout his whole career. It’s not quite fair to say “David’s back,” as that belittles a lot of excellent work he’s done in the past two decades. But Heathen is the sound of Bowie firing on all cylinders, putting a great deal of care into every aspect of his art—and making us care in the process. The result is one of the nice surprises of the year so far.

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