Heathen (Columbia)

David Bowie 

Heathen (Columbia)

What makes Heathen David Bowie's finest hour since 1980's Scary Monsters? You could assume it's because he rounded up that album's producer (Tony Visconti, sorely missed) and 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.

The album 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 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 the 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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