Buried inside a new coffee-table book documenting the work of Überpaparazzo Ron Galella is a fascinating time-capsule photo of old-school rock elite. The shot, taken backstage at the Grammys in 1976, is a group huddle of Simon and Garfunkel, John and Yoko, and a vampire. Actually, the bloodsucker is David Bowie, who seems to be kicking off his well-documented period of drugs and excess in the most appropriate manner. The cheeks are bony and caved in, the skin looks like it could tear at any moment, and the foppish suit and hat can’t hide the overall feel of youthful decay. He’s like a party-hearty cadaver.
On Heathen, Bowie longs to return to that period, minus the stimulants (the pasty face remains, of course). The album reunites him with Tony Visconti, the producer who worked on nearly every Bowie record between 1975’s ”Young Americans” and 1980’s ”Scary Monsters.” During that period, Bowie buried his Ziggy Stardust costume once and for all, and the two men (on the later work in particular) mixed haunted-house rock, streaking-comet noise, Europop, and brittle psyche, making for Bowie’s most artistically fertile period. He didn’t simply look like he was on the edge; he sounded that way as well.
Bowie’s reunion with Visconti is a risky move in a decade that’s been filled with risks, most of which have failed, like his wan drum-and-bass collection, ”Earthling,” or his reunion with another vintage collaborator, Brian Eno, on the stilted concept album ”Outside.” But reconvening with his best-known producer is one strategy that actually works. Bowie always trips himself up when he goes hunting for hit singles, which he rarely did with Visconti and doesn’t do here, either. ”Heathen” is imbued with the same approach to shape-shifting sonic murk as that early period: Synthesizers burp and wheeze, percussion seems to echo somewhere in the distance, dark strings underscore the songs like musical Magic Markers, and Bowie abandons his occasional teatime hiccup for a deepened, reedy theatricality. The disc doesn’t so much soar as whir somewhere above us.
The unsettling, and unsettled, arrangements turn out to be a fine match for songs that suggest a shaky, alien post-Sept. 11 universe. Bowie, a downtown Manhattan resident, has said — including in this magazine — that he wrote the material for ”Heathen” before that catastrophic morning, which suggests he’s either clairvoyant or just a generally nervous person. The tramping-monk shuffle, ”Sunday,” the peeved ”A Better Future,” and the more raucous ”Slow Burn” are saturated with imagery of cities and lives in collapse, just as ”I Would Be Your Slave” finds Bowie pledging allegiance to a god who can give him answers. The optimism of ”Afraid” is cautious at best. The album’s oddest song, ”Slip Away,” is on one hand an affectionate ode to ”The Uncle Floyd Show,” a lovably low-tech vaudeville TV series of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Thanks to its celestial arrangement, which at times suggests ”Space Oddity,” it also feels like an elegy for an era when the worst thing imaginable was not having a big-enough antenna to view a cult TV show.
”Heathen” isn’t all shadows and blight. Bowie indulges in some Ziggy-period insouciance for a version of the Pixies’ twisted love song ”Cactus” and offers up a redundant take on Neil Young’s slashing, underappreciated ”I’ve Been Waiting for You.” But Bowie is also astute enough to realize that rocking out isn’t what he does best anymore; he’s better off aiming for a middle ground between art song and an intergalactic Tin Pan Alley, and that’s where the best parts of ”Heathen” lie.
For all its appeal, there’s something a little off about the album. Back in the late ’70s, as that Ron Galella photo reminds us, Bowie was a genuine heathen, a premature symbol of end-of-the-century decadence. Twenty-plus years later, Bowie has left his creature features long behind. He’s well-heeled rock gentry with a family and a sizable bank account; if there was a section in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum for aristocracy, he’d be there. Starting with its cover, ”Heathen” wants you to believe that the MTV careerist of the ’80s and the businessman who sold shares in his back catalog to investors in the ’90s are gone, and that Bowie is back to being Weird Fringe Guy. It’s wishful thinking at best, a ridiculous conceit at worst. But the album allows Bowie to return to his eeriest character — let’s call it Grim Shady — and it’s still the best role of his life.