Heroes is the second album in what we can now hope will be a series of David Bowie-Brian Eno collaborations, because this album answers the question of whether Bowie can be a real collaborator. Like his work with Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and Iggy Pop, Low, Bowie’s first album with Eno, seemed to be just another auteurist exploitation, this time of the Eno-Kraftwerk avant-garde. Heroes, though, prompts a much more enthusiastic reading of the collaboration, which here takes the form of a union of Bowie’s dramatic instincts and Eno’s unshakable sonic serenity. Even more importantly, Bowie shows himself for the first time as a willing, even anxious, student rather than a simple cribber. As rock’s Zen master, Eno is fully prepared to show him the way.
Like Low, Heroes is divided into a cyclic instrumental side and a song-set side. “V-2 Schneider” is an ingeniously robotic recasting of Booker T. and the M.G.’s—at once typical of Bowie’s obsession with pop dance music and a spectacular instance of an Eno R&B “study” (a going concern of Eno’s own records). “Sense of Doubt” lines up an ominously deep piano figure with Eno synthesizer washes, blending them into “Moss Garden,” an exquisitely static cut featuring Bowie on koto, a Japanese string instrument. Low had no such moments of easy exchange; Bowie either submitted his voice as another instrument for Eno or he pressed Eno to play the part of art-rock keyboard player.
The most spectacular moments on this record occur on the vocal side’s crazed rock & roll. Working inside the new style Bowie forged for Iggy Pop, “Beauty and the Beast” makes very weird but probable connections between the fairy tale, Iggy’s angel-beast identity and Jean Cocteau’s Surrealist Catholicism, a crucial source for Cocteau’s film of the tale.
For the finale, Heroes explodes into a trilogy of dark prophecy: “Sons of the Silent Age,” “Heroes” and “Black Out.” It’s a Diamond Dogs set that, this time, makes it into the back pages of Samuel Delaney’s post-apocalypse fiction, pushed by a brilliant cerebral nova among the players. Bowie sings in a paradoxical (or is it schizo?) style at once unhinged and wholly self-controlled. With a chill, the listener can hear clearly through Bowie’s compressed lyrics and the dense sound.
We’ll have to wait to see if Bowie has found in the austere Eno a long-term collaborator who can draw out the substantial words and music that have lurked beneath the surface of Bowie’s clever games for so long. But Eno clearly has effected a nearly miraculous change in Bowie already.