The Observer - Sunday June 9, 2002

Heathen reaches for the divine

After a decade of experiments, Bowie is back on track.

By Burhan Wazir

DAVID BOWIE Heathen (Columbia 508222-2)

For the majority of the Nineties, David Bowie seemed to try his hand at virtually every musical genre - mainstream dance, industrial rock and even drum'n'bass. The experiments - and they sounded like little else - while artistically challenging, seemed to indicate a man in freefall, bored of the burden of his past and perhaps fearful of the future.

Heathen, thankfully, has little of Bowie's recent reticence about committing himself to the cause. He hasn't sounded as purposeful as this in a long time. In particular, he avoids the multi-personality transfers of his various dance projects and gets back to what most have suspected he could easily deliver - a mainstream rock album.

The result is little short of revelatory, arriving as it does so unexpectedly. Heathen is mainly crafted with drums, bass and guitar and seems to indicate Bowie going full circle, or at least acknowledging the one facet of his personality he has been keen to ignore since the Seventies: Ziggy Stardust.

The songs are suitably sleek, and punctuated by simple percussion. 'I Would Be Your Slave', trading on whispers of strings, has the singer pronounce: 'Open up your heart to me/ Show me who you are/ And I would be your slave.' It's a simple, elegiac song, and perhaps the finest Bowie has written for at least a decade.

Most of the other material - including 'Slip Away', 'Slow Burn' and 'Afraid' - isn't bad either. If the return to rock music has invigorated his lyrical style, it has also done wonders for his voice. He sounds enigmatic, compelling and confident.

Ziggy Stardust parallels are not entirely unfounded. On 'Gemini Spacecraft', a delightfully throwaway song, Bowie sings: 'Took a trip on a Gemini spacecraft/ It was all about you/ I passed through the shadow of Jupiter/ And thought about you.' It's as if he's laughing at his former glories, and realising recent mistakes.

Although Heathen rarely stumbles, there are occasional problems, such as on the title track and 'Everyone Says Hi', where Bowie's arrangements sound a little convoluted in their desire to remain contemporary.

The remaining tracks have a familiar, late-Seventies-era feel. To that extent, Heathen is not a rebirth but a welcome, if sometimes unsure, rediscovery of former talents.