The most immediate pleasures on Heathen are all covers. David Bowie has exquisitely hip taste, and he attacks the Pixies’ “Cactus,” Neil Young’s ’69 ruby “I’ve Been Waiting for You” and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s sci-fi valentine “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” with the same sharp-dressed zest that he brought to the Easybeats and Pretty Things hits on 1973’s Pin Ups.
The rest of Heathen is the sound of Bowie essentially covering himself — to splendid, often moving effect. The album sparkles with hindsight: the Low-like electrofrost of “Sunday”; the Martian-calliope coda of “Slip Away,” played by Bowie on a Stylophone, the antique synth featured on 1969’s “Space Oddity.” In “Slow Burn,” guest guitarist Pete Townshend channels Robert Fripp’s cool signature riff from 1977’s “Heroes” through Who’s Next-style amp rage. And Bowie co-produced Heathen with Tony Visconti, the ears at the board for most of Bowie’s best LPs from 1970 (The Man Who Sold the World) to 1980 (Scary Monsters).
The poignancy is in the heartbeat audible beneath the old tricks. “I believe my little soul has grown,” Bowie claims in “Afraid,” a high-speed jolt of Hunky Dory-flavored strum and strings, and he seems to mean it. This is his least affected album in a decade, a relief after the overreach of 1995’s Outside (operatic grunge) and ’97’s Earthling (watery jungle). Heathen is also Bowie stripped bare. His great concept roles — Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke — were all lost souls, trapped in space or circumstance. Bowie works here without masks, deepening the sultry gravity of his voice with open yearning in “Slip Away” (“Life on Mars?” reset in the nutty sweetness of the 1980s cult-TV hit The Uncle Floyd Show) and the icy waiting song “5:15 All the Angels Have Gone.” A loose theme runs through these songs, covers included: the search for guiding light in godless night. But the real story is Heathen‘s perfect casting: Bowie playing Bowie, with class.