Heathen Lyrical Analysis Part One

The album opens with the subterranean 'Sunday'. The opening line "nothing remains" stirs up images of utter destruction yet the elemental world still remains intact. Rain, heat, and shafts of light prove that despite "the beginning of an end" nothing has really changed. Paradoxically everything has changed. It may seem like the beginning of nothing important because the gravity of the event has yet to sink in. The protagonist's ordeal will be remembered. Bowie alludes to redemption/purgation through fire and the liquidation of fear in the quest for love. The image of wings reminds me of the Phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction, reborn from the restorative fire.

'Sunday' is followed by the Pixies song 'Cactus', a plaintive tale of a prison inmate's longing. The song strengthens the overall themes of the album, acting as a perfect pivot between 'Sunday' and 'Slip Away'. The "heat" described in 'Sunday' declares itself again in 'Cactus'. Heat as a devouring element is the perfect metaphor for an all consuming desire. The protagonist burns to touch his beloved. Swallowed up by the flames of passion, he even lusts after her wine-stained dress. An insatiable thirst and an omnivorous hunger leave him craving for more.

The song 'Slip Away' arguably one of the saddest and sweetest tunes on the album portrays the characters Bones Boy and Oogie, flickering stars on the silver screen. The song alludes to the twilight of celebrity, the fading luster of once radiant stars. Bowie insinuates that "the flicks" are imperishable and that "Uncle Floyd" remains immortal and never fading on the silver screen - "all the world watching." The heat and light of adoration flickers/fluctuates with the passing of time. Fanaticism and fascination waver but even one fan can keep the torch burning forever!

In the song 'Slow Burn' Bowie suggests a dance in the darkness. Terror and fear rule a despairing world turned upside down. The line "echoes in tenement halls" suggests uninhabited dwellings, deserted apartments. He also alludes to a world where the government becomes our watch and ward taking charge of our lives through surveillance and a burning scrutiny: "The walls shall have eyes and the doors shall have ears."

The main character in 'Afraid' lives in isolation. Is he in voluntary exile, an inhabitant of lonely tenement halls, a ghostly prisoner of terror, or a slave of the burning rays of hope deferred? He puts his faith in medication and believes his soul has grown. Not being smarter or taller is no laughing matter to the man with the "crooked smile." Perhaps his reputation is at stake. After all this is a man who used to "wake up the ocean," and "walk on clouds." Maybe he wants to "talk on television" because he desires lasting fame, an immortal name. While "lost on the shore, walking an empty mile," can he bring himself to believe he's not alone and will he continue to put his faith in tomorrow and finally conquer his fear of life?

The Neil Young remake of 'I've Been Waiting For You' acts as a hinge between 'Afraid' and the next song 'I Would Be Your Slave'. The protagonist confesses his longings for "a woman to save his life." He desires a woman who also has a growing faith in tomorrow, a faith in the future. He's been sitting tight, sweating it out, biding his time, waiting, and looking for her. Faith, hope, belief, and the promise of a new life turn his dreams into reality and stir him to action.

In 'I Would Be Your Slave' the leading man seeks peace of mind and is prepared to open his heart to his beloved. He is ready to sacrifice his inaction and fear for the freedom that only love can bring. He is not waiting for a divine force to rescue him. He wants a flesh and blood lover and is willing to brave the perils of ridicule and derision and make a fool of himself for true love. He becomes a willing devotee and slave to his all-consuming desire.

On the remake of 'I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship', an old Stardust Cowboy song, Bowie uses it's imagery of space travel to further reinforce the themes of longing that pervade Heathen. Desire (I shot my spacegun and I thought about you) reaches almost comical proportions here. The light of moonbeams, sunbeams, and the stars like beams of hope, illuminate a cloudless sky and keep the protagonist free from the darkness yet his fantasy is a double-edged attraction. Longing soon becomes a heaviness of heart: "I pulled down my sun visor. Boy I really felt blue." Yearning for the beyond seems only to intensify his homesickness.

In '5:15 The Angels Have Gone', Bowie sings: "Cold station all of my life." "I'm changing trains." The protagonist has lost his bearings; he no longer knows his place in the scheme of things. The person he loves no longer communicates with him and worst of all his guardian spirits have forsaken him. The heavenly powers have abandoned their wards. The main character of 'Angels' is no longer under their wings. Unanchored and unprotected, he seeks brighter prospects, the hope of Heaven, or maybe just a little safety in a world full of dangers.

In the song 'Everyone Says Hi', Bowie uses the metaphor of travel again to describe longing and loss. Home vs. the "foreign place." He confesses to the refugee, perhaps a runaway from love: "Said you sailed away, didn't know the right thing to say." "I should have took a picture, something I could keep." Now all he is left with are his memories. Hope and love are often undervalued or belittled until it's too late! Bowie adds a touch of essential humor when he sings: "Everyone says hi - your mum and dad and your big fat dog."

'A Better Future' sums up the pervasive themes of the album. Bowie sings: "Please don't tear this world asunder. Take back this fear we're under." He seems again to be addressing the celestial beings, the invisible choir. He goes so far as to blackmail the Gods: "I demand a better future or I might just stop needing you." He wants the gathering clouds and the prophecies of doom to disappear. He yearns for "some kind of future." Again he invokes images of the sober philistine, the "factory and field workers," the simple men living in a complex world and an image of utter destruction that only the heathen/nihilist could envision: "Down there below. Nothing is moving." It is a final, heart-breaking image devoid of all light and life. The protagonist would prefer to have all the pain and sorrow of another tomorrow rather than nothing at all. The song is anything but a dirge, however. It is a celebration of hope and defiant faith!

The final song 'Heathen (The Rays)' invokes the inquietude and inconstancy of human existance, whether manifested in God's footprints in the shifting sands of time, the flickering stars of Heaven, the vagrant hearts of refugees from love, or the ever-changing soul of the chameleon. Bowie intones: "Made for a real world yet all things must pass." "You'll say you'll leave me when the sun is low and the rays are high. I can see it now. I can feel it die." But death is not an end but only "the beginning of an end." For everything must change.

Heathen Lyrical Analysis Part Two

In the song 'Sunday', David Bowie sings "This is the trip." "Rise together through these clouds as on wings." Castle-building always requires on to climb high into the clouds. The daydreamer/seeker must be prepared to pay the price for love and peace, prepared to deal with the cloudbursts, the floods, the wind and rain of thunderstorms. The thunderbolts in the gathering clouds strike him down. Future fear and foreboding loom. He attempts to shake his tight fist at the menacing skies yet the darkness prevails. The "tripper" is now caught and trapped in murky shadows and the rainclouds are everywhere. His reverie and musing is shaken to the core, his romantic idealism relegated to a sea of troubles. He quickly moves from ecstasy to lovesickness/homesickness as the tides begin to rise.

In 'Slip Away', Bones Boy and Oogie escape. They don't want to stay behind. They make thier get away and give us the slip. They slip through our fingers. They attempt to break out in search of freedom and deliverance. It's a trip over Coney Island. The sailor rides the storm yet again. Will he drift in space or hug the shore or forever slip away?

In 'Afraid' the spiritual seeker used to walk on clouds. He knew how to navigate the storms. Once upon a time the foul weather and dirty sky didn't frighten him. Now he's even lost on the shore. He used to stir up the seas, ride ocean waves without any qualms, unafraid of cloudy skies. Now he wants to touch solid ground, even if it means "walking an empty mile."

In 'I Would Be Your Slave' the travel-stained searcher walks in the snowy street. He drifts down a silent path. The wandering explorer "stumbles over land." He searches for "footsteps in the sand." This is a pilgrimage of peace, a voyage into the soul of a beloved guardian angel, a trip into the heart of a divine lover.

In 'Gemini Spacecraft' the trip takes the explorer through the shadow of Jupiter. The celestial nomad orbits the moon for just one time. He looks back to see the stardust trail. Is he searching for the "footprints in the sand" again? Has his guardian angel left any tracks or traces in the night sky? In this song the divine beloved seems so far away!

In '5:15 The Angels Have Gone' the traveler is changing trains. The little town he came from let him down. Now even the "foreign rain" is bringing him down. Those pesty rainclouds again! His train is overdue and he hasn't even got his ticket, so he's jumping the tracks. A perpetual outcast, he's been abandoned by his angels all of his life!

In 'Everyone Says Hi' the wayfarer took a big trip. He moved away so quickly nobody even knew he was gone. Rumour has it he sailed a big ship. The lyrics invoke a heavy nostalgia for what might or should have been. The song reeks of regret and blighted hope on the one hand, and a feeling that the main character has finally found his homeland, on the other. At journey's end, perhaps, the traveler has found refuge from the storms. This eternal outsider may have ultimately found peace of mind. No longer unhoused and nomadic, perhaps, he has found sanctuary once and for all!

Nevada Kerr
June 2002.

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