Toronto Star - August 2002

David Bowie finds dark majesty

Rock 'n' roll changeling shows he's in peak form in latest album, Heathen

By Ben Rayner

We believe in David Bowie.

As one of the rare artists of his vintage who's remained consistently unpredictable - or predictably unpredictable, anyway - throughout a career that's now spanned nearly 40 years, the 55-year-old rock 'n' roll changeling is held to decidedly high standards whenever it comes time to release a new album.

Bowie's unwillingness to coast on his hallowed past and indulge in middle-aged greatest-hits revivalism has been dividing fans and critics alike since the 1980s, and the results of his musical quest have, admittedly, been mixed.

At least he's always kept us guessing. And while the reaction to some of his more recent experiments - growing a beard and playing rough 'n' tumble pre-grunge rocker with the undeservedly reviled Tin Machine, for instance, or flirting with drum 'n' bass breaks on 1996's Earthling - has been polarized, Bowie's latest recording, Heathen, has achieved enthusiastic consensus among observers who've hailed it as his finest disc in years.

"I was even able to slip little bits of drum 'n' bass in there without anybody noticing, just to be defiant," laughs Bowie, calling from his adopted home of New York the morning after commencing a month-long run on Moby's Area2 festival tour ("I think it was pretty amazing," he says of the first date. "Well, I know it was pretty amazing").

Whether or not it constitutes a major step forward is a matter of debate, but Heathen certainly taps into the dark, atmospheric majesty that characterized Bowie's classic, late-'70s output.

Much credit for that, no doubt, goes to producer Tony Visconti, with whom Bowie collaborated on such classic records as Heroes and Scary Monsters, both of which are echoed in Heathen's otherworldly feel and shimmering electro-pop textures. But Visconti's presence also compelled Bowie to unload some of the strongest and most effortlessly Bowie-esque material ("Slow Burn" and the eerily gorgeous title track best just about everything in his '90s catalogue) in his late-career songbook.

"We've been talking about it for the last five years now, but it didn't ever seem right at any particular time," says Bowie of his reunion with Visconti. "I didn't want to do anything shallow. I didn't want it to be a desperate effort. It was very important to me that we didn't kind of ruin our reputations. We've done such great work together that there was no point in just doing an obvious, 'and now, an accumulation of everything we've done' type album. That would've just been the worst thing.

"I really needed the songs to direct the way the album would go and not 'Oh, what are Tony and I known for?' I started stockpiling songs, keeping them on one side and thinking, 'This would be a great song for me and Tony. We could really do something with this'...

"Within the first three or four songs I wrote were the songs 'Sunday' and 'Heathen,' and we pretty much got those down first because I knew they'd be the bookends of the album. And then I tried to make sure that everything else that we did worked within the context of those two songs, so they were kind of the poles of the album and became the benchmarks of what the atmosphere of the album would be like."

Visconti's return and Heathen's overall Scary Monsters-ish sound - to say nothing of recent European shows where Bowie and his band tackled the new album and 1977's Low back-to-back - suggest Bowie is mining his peak-period output for inspiration these days, but he maintains the record is less an homage to his past than a product of circumstance.

"My own feelings about that aspect is that I would rather say it has a signature style," he says. "It's almost irrevocably a product of what Visconti and I would do when we work together. It sounds like an album that Visconti and I would make, and both of our strengths show up, I think. They're all very much in focus."

The challenge now, says Bowie - well aware of the irony that the same radio programmers who spin "Ziggy Stardust" and "Space Oddity" ad nauseam have no convenient format in which to slot his current material - is getting people to hear the new record. Hence, his decision to sign on for friend and neighbour Moby's Area2 road show this summer alongside rapper Busta Rhymes, DJs Carl Cox and John Digweed and numerous other performers.

"At my age, frankly, I can't expect to get radio play and all that," he says. "So a lot of it has been word-of-mouth, they (Columbia Records) have done print ads and television ads and I've done as many TV shows as I possibly can around it...

"That's the way the cookie crumbles. You have to become a realist. It's an industry and they're marketing and they adore their focus groups and all that and they know the age parameters of who their audiences are and blah, blah, blah. You can't fight that - you just have to kind of work around it. It's tough for anybody my age to get any kind of radio play, even if the stuff is really, really good.

"If I changed my name or something, produced photographs of a 20-year-old, I could play those games. But I'm too old to bother, so I just do what I can do and I'm quite happy to live with the results because the results have been really excellent for me."

Bowie's current live repertoire leans heavily on Heathen, but fans can expect a retrospective of "songs I still give a shit about" going back as far as "Space Oddity" during his Area2 performance. That show will likely be the last we see of Bowie for a while, since family life is his priority these days.

"I'm looking forward to ending the tour," chuckles Bowie, who'll be shuttling home to be with his wife and 2-year-old daughter ("She's wonderful, makes everything worthwhile") as often as possible during the jaunt. "I'm not terribly good at touring, only because over the last few years as a writer things have gotten really good for me. I'm really enjoying how I'm writing and I just want to keep on writing. I really am looking forward to space again to start work on something new."