Detailed Pedia

Heathen (David Bowie album)

Heathen
Heathen.jpg
Studio album by
Released10 June 2002 (2002-06-10)
RecordedAugust 2001 – January 2002
Studio
Genre
Length52:08
Label
Producer
David Bowie chronology
All Saints
(2001)
Heathen
(2002)
Best of Bowie
(2002)
David Bowie studio albums chronology
Hours
(1999)
Heathen
(2002)
Reality
(2003)
Singles from Heathen
  1. "Slow Burn"
    Released: 3 June 2002
  2. "Everyone Says 'Hi'"
    Released: 16 September 2002
  3. "I've Been Waiting for You"
    Released: September 2002 (Canada only)

Heathen (stylised as uǝɥʇɐǝɥ) is the 23rd studio album by English musician David Bowie. It was originally released in Europe on 10 June 2002, and the following day in America. After departing EMI/Virgin, it was his first release through his newly-formed ISO Records label, in conjunction with Columbia Records. It reunited Bowie with producer Tony Visconti, marking the two's first full-album collaboration since 1980's Scary Monsters. Recording mostly took place at New York studios from August 2001 to January 2002 and featured overdubs from several guest musicians, including Dave Grohl and Pete Townshend. Two tracks, including "Afraid" and "Slip Away" evolved from Bowie's shelved Toy album, while three were covers by Pixies, Neil Young and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

Musically, Heathen features an art rock and art pop sound reminiscent of Bowie's 1970s works, with several tracks displaying similar melodies and arrangements. Meanwhile, the spiritual lyrics reflected Bowie's accumulated feelings of dread, thoughts on ageing, and hope for a better future for his newborn daughter. Due to the timing of its release, several commentators interpreted some tracks, particularly "Sunday" and "Slow Burn", as a partial response to the September 11 attacks, although Bowie was adamant that the material was written beforehand. The album's spiritual themes were reflected in the artwork and packaging.

Boosted by a vast marketing campaign and promotional appearances, Heathen was Bowie's most widely-anticipated album in years. It charted in numerous countries and peaked at number five on the UK Albums Chart. It also became his highest charting album in the United States since Tonight (1984), reaching number 14 on the Billboard 200. Additionally, the single "Everyone Says 'Hi'" reached number 20 in the UK. Heathen was also the artist's most well-received album in years, with critics calling it a return to form and his best since Scary Monsters. Many also signaled out the return of Visconti.

Bowie supported the album on the Heathen Tour throughout mid-2002, which saw him perform at several festivals, including headlining the UK's Meltdown. Several shows featured both Low (1977) and Heathen played in their entireties. The album marked a creative and commercial resurgence for Bowie following a period of experimentation in the 1990s. His biographers have praised Heathen as an improvement over its predecessors, with several commending Bowie's ability to update his older sound for a modern setting and recognise it as one of his finest in his later career.

Background and writing

A gray-haired man with glasses and a black shirt standing in front of a microphone
Heathen reunited Bowie and Tony Visconti (pictured in 2007) for the first time since 1980.

In 2000, David Bowie recorded Toy, a collection of remade songs he wrote in the 1960s with a couple of new tracks. Originally slated for release in March 2001, the project was shelved due to financial troubles encumbering his label, EMI/Virgin. In the meantime, Bowie began work on a new album with his former producer Tony Visconti, marking the duo's first full-length collaboration since Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980). After not speaking to each other for almost 20 years, the two reconciled in 1998 and recorded various one-off projects before reuniting for a full album. Both men were eager to work with each other again, with Visconti stating: "It was only in very recent years, around the time he made contact again, that I realized how much I missed him. We both had grown and changed, so the time was right to open the channels again."

Bowie spent the spring of 2001 writing compositions. Wanting to establish a framework for the sessions, he started initial work at New York City's Looking Glass Studios alone. When writing, he aimed to make a collection of "serious songs to be sung", further explaining to Interview magazine, "I went in with the idea of creating a personal, cultural restoration", wanting to capture elements of songwriting techniques he had used throughout his entire career. Visconti was impressed with Bowie's growth as a songwriter, stating: "His knowledge of harmonic and chordal structure has vastly improved... there was more depth to his melodic and harmonic writing." As a result, Heathen became Bowie's first solely-written album since 1993's The Buddha of Suburbia. Numerous personal events in Bowie's life, such as the birth of his daughter Alexandria in August 2000, the death of his mother Margaret in April 2001, and the death of his friend Freddie Buretti in May, deeply affected him and influenced some of the new material. In June, Bowie moved into Visconti's home in West Nyack, New York, where the two spent time working on songs using Pro Tools.

Recording and production

Initial sessions

A green mountain range
A view of Glen Tonche in the Catskill Mountains, where Heathen was recorded.

On their second day of working, Bowie and Visconti travelled to Allaire Studios in Shokan, New York at the suggestion of guitarist David Torn. Located on the estate of Glen Tonche on top of Mount Tonche in the Catskill Mountains two hours north of New York City, the studio had 40-foot tall ceilings and a view of the Ashokan Reservoir. Although he had preferred more urban areas, such as New York City or Berlin, Bowie found the location's isolationism was inspirational for the sessions and began to write "furiously"; the tracks "Sunday" and "Heathen (The Rays)" were specifically influenced by the surroundings. He told Interview:

Walking through the door, everything that my album should be about was galvanized for me into one focal point. Even though I couldn't express it in words right at that second, I knew what the lyrics were already. They were all suddenly accumulated in my mind. It was an 'on-the-road-to-Damascus' type of experience, you know? It was almost like my feet were lifted off the ground.

Recording at Allaire commenced in August 2001 and continued into September. The lineup initially consisted of Bowie, Visconti, and drummer Matt Chamberlain, whom the two had met while scouting at the studio; David Torn contributed guitar parts in September. The trio finished 19 pieces in about two weeks, one of which was a remake of the Toy track "Uncle Floyd", now titled "Slip Away". When asked about using entirely new personnel by Time Out magazine, Bowie explained, "I was keen to work with musicians neither [Tony nor I] had worked with before." As for himself, Bowie contributed more instrumentation on Heathen than any studio album "since Diamond Dogs [1974] or maybe Low [1977]"; he played guitar, saxophone, stylophone, keyboards, drums and the same EMS AKS synthesiser he used on Low. According to biographer Nicholas Pegg, this development was "actively encouraged" by Visconti. Visconti also brought back the vocal sound previously utilised on the song "'Heroes'" (1977) for "Sunday" and "I Would Be Your Slave", wherein three microphones were set up at different distances from the singer, each opening up when Bowie sang at the appropriate volume.

Overdubs and mixing

Dave Grohl in 2014
Pete Townshend in 2008
Musicians who contributed overdubs to Heathen included Dave Grohl (left, in 2014) on "I've Been Waiting for You" and Pete Townshend (right, in 2008) on "Slow Burn".

In addition to the core band, Bowie invited several former collaborators and newcomers to Allaire for overdubs. They included guitarist Gerry Leonard, who returned from the Toy sessions, singer Kristeen Young, who previously worked with Visconti, and keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who had worked with Bowie and Visconti before the Toy sessions. Rudess revealed at the time: "Bowie doesn't like a lot of options. He has a good idea of how he wants the end result to sound, so practically what's on his demo is close to what he wants." Returning collaborators on guitar included Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl: having previously performed with Bowie at his 50th birthday concert in January 1997, Grohl guested on a cover of Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting for You"; Carlos Alomar, last seen on the 1995 Outside Tour, contributed overdubs in mid-October; and the Who's Pete Townshend, who played parts for "Slow Burn", having previously guested on "Because You're Young" from Scary Monsters. Townshend later told fans that Heathen was "surprising, moving, poetic, in a musical and visionary sense."

Mixing for Heathen began at Looking Glass in October. Here, Visconti reworked the Mark Plati-produced Toy track "Afraid" to have it match the new material. Bowie, Visconti and Alomar also recorded vocals and guitars for "Everyone Says 'Hi'", which was completed at Sub Urban Studios in London with production by Brian Rawling and Gary Miller. Miller said that he primarily worked off the vocals: "It started off like a remix, but ended up as a fully-fledged production." Overdubbing continued on and off until January 2002. Visconti added contributions from the Scorchio Quartet (Greg Kitzis, Meg Okura, Martha Mooke, Mary Wooten), who previously played with Bowie at the Tibet House Benefit Concert in February 2000, and the Borneo Horns (Lenny Pickett, Stan Harrison, Steve Elson), last seen on Never Let Me Down (1987). Other credited players on Heathen include drummer Sterling Campbell and bassist Tony Levin of King Crimson.

Outtakes from the sessions included "Wood Jackson", "When the Boys Came Marching Home", a new version of a track Bowie and Visconti recorded in 1998 called "Safe", and "Fly". Bowie later remarked that "the hard part was knowing which songs not to include [on the final album]".

Music and lyrics

The standard edition of Heathen contains 12 songs, of which nine are originals and three are covers. Two of the covers were originally slated for inclusion on an abandoned sequel to Bowie's 1973 covers album Pin Ups: Young's "I've Been Waiting for You" and "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship" by Norman Odam, or the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, from whom Bowie lifted part of his Ziggy Stardust moniker in 1972. The final cover is "Cactus" by the Pixies, which features Bowie on all instruments except for bass and is his only recorded drum performance. Biographer David Buckley writes that the album is musically diverse, presenting a range of genres from the "edgy rock" of Scary Monsters ("Cactus"), techno ("I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship"), American punk ("I've Been Waiting For You"), drum and bass ballad ("I Would Be Your Slave"), riff rock ("Afraid"), quasi-reggae ("5.15 The Angels Have Gone") and 1971-era pop ("Everyone Says 'Hi'"). Other reviewers have classified Heathen as art rock and art pop. Compared to previous albums, the songs feature numerous more ties between the melodies, harmonies and arrangements, predominantly on "Sunday", "Slip Away" and "Afraid". Bowie said he based the songs on Heathen off of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs, particularly "Sunday", "Heathen (The Rays)", "I Would Be Your Slave" and "5.15 The Angels Have Gone", as well as capturing the mood of Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind (1997).

According to Bowie, the album's overarching theme was "of a world that had dispensed of its gods". Visconti later confirmed to The Guardian that "the concept of Heathen is a godless century. [Bowie] was addressing the bleakness of our soul... and maybe his own soul." At the time, Rolling Stone's David Fricke similarly wrote that a loose theme throughout the album details "the search for guiding light in godless night". Described by Buckley as "sombre, moody, spiritually questing and reflective", the album continues the "spirituality" of Outside (1995), Earthling (1997) and Hours (1999) and presents Bowie's strong reflections on ageing. He told Interview magazine that once you reach a certain age, you realise "you're not growing anymore", "your body's strength is diminishing" and once aware, "You've got to let it go". Comparing Heathen and Hours, author Dave Thompson notes that both share "a similar mood, a similar air of mature reflection and a similar air of deep, personal beauty". However, compared to, in Pegg's words, the "world-weary reminiscence" that pervaded Hours, Heathen focuses on feelings of existential dread, particularly on "Sunday", "Afraid" and the title track. Pegg also analyses the feeling of anxiety throughout Heathen as being different compared to records such as Diamond Dogs (1974) and Station to Station (1976), in that here, "it is the anxiety of a happy, fulfilled mind struggling to come to terms with imitations of mortality." Bowie elaborated in Interview: "It's a head-spinning dichotomy of the lust for life against the finality of everything." He also defined the album's protagonist as a lost 21st-century man.

Connections with 9/11

It was all written before. Every single song[...] I don't want it to reflect that situation particularly at all, because in fact that crock of songs came out of a general feeling of anxiety I've had in America for a number of years. It wasn't that localized – bang! – thing that happened in September.

—David Bowie, Entertainment Weekly, 2002

Due to its subject matter and timing of its release, many commentators at the time suggested that Heathen was partly a response to the September 11 attacks. Author Marc Spitz argued that because Heathen was recorded in New York, it is inevitable that listeners would interpret the lyrics as a response to the attacks. In The Words and Music of David Bowie, James E. Perone stated that the album "chronicles New York City at the time of the...attacks".

However, Bowie was adamant that the majority of the material was written beforehand, though he admitted that the songs deal with the general feeling of anxiety that he'd had in America for a number of years, adding "it's not unlikely that you're going to have a sense of angst in anything that's recorded in New York or by New Yorkers". He also remarked that "half a dozen" of his own albums, had they been released after the attacks, would have attracted similar attention as commentaries on the attacks. Visconti later explained that the recording sessions were still underway at the time of the attacks, but suggested that "only a few lines were amended after September 11". Plati also commented that "I think in Heathen you can feel the overall mood of where we all were during those times." Thompson argued that the album "sounded like it understood how people felt".

Perone identifies tracks such as "Slip Away", "Slow Burn" and "A Better Future" as reflecting a post-9/11 atmosphere, while regarding "Sunday", Bowie himself admitted: "It was quite spine-tingling to realize how close those lyrics came. There are some key words in there that really just freak me out." A month after the attacks, Bowie performed "'Heroes'" and a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "America" at the Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden. A week after the show, he stated that he "felt duty-bound to do something" following the attacks.

Songs

Album opener "Sunday" displays pervading electronic textures and numerous loops using created synthesisers. It musically descends from tracks such as "Word on a Wing" (1976), "The Motel" (1995), "The Dreamers" (1999), and the atmospherics of Low (1977). Establishing the album's core themes of, in Pegg's words, "spiritual uncertainty and existential fear", the dreary lyrics were inspired by the "barren beauty" of the surrounding region around Allaire. Regarding the title, Pegg evaluates it as "neatly encapsulat[ing] the album's sense of an uneasy balance between the spiritual and the secular." The lyrics of "Cactus", taken from Pixies' debut album Surfer Rosa (1988), discuss a distaste and lack of sexual engagement that biographer Chris O'Leary considers a "carnal relief" from the rest of the album's "Grand Old Man-isms". Bowie played most of the instruments while Visconti played bass. Pegg considers it a raw, tightly produced piece of garage rock that pays homage to T.Rex's "The Groover" (1973).

Pegg considers "Slip Away" a "sweeping ballad" reminiscent of "Space Oddity" and "Life on Mars?. Originally the Toy track "Uncle Floyd", the song was re-recorded from scratch for Heathen. The lyrics meditate on lost happiness and yearning expressed through the views of two puppets from the obscure low-budget children's television series The Uncle Floyd Show. Bowie became a fan of the show in 1980 and even appeared on it in 1981. He said in 2002 that he placed "Slip Away" on Heathen because he "wanted something on the album that pointed to a nicer time... even if it wasn't necessarily true." "Slow Burn" musically harkens back to Bowie's 1970s works, particularly with saxophone playing. Pegg finds it a modernised update of the R&B styles of tracks such as "'Heroes'" and "Teenage Wildlife" (1980). The lyrics express a feeling of anxiety in a "terrible town" that were grounded in feelings Bowie had accumulated over many years. Nevertheless, commentators suggested a 9/11 influence, with O'Leary arguing that lyrics such as "Here are we, at the centre of it all" evoke the atmosphere of New York City after the attacks.

The reworking of "Afraid" is set to the original backing track recorded for Toy, albeit enhanced by new production from Visconti. This recording is more upbeat and inspired by 1970s new wave. Lyrically, its character is insecure and fearful for the future, which Pegg finds reminiscent of the 1997 re-recording of "I Can't Read". Pegg considers Bowie's cover of "I've Been Waiting for You", taken from Young's eponymous 1969 debut album, a "strong and direct rendition" that stands as the "least essential" of the album's three cover versions." Perone highlights Grohl's guest performance as standing out on its own rather than mimicking Young's original. According to O'Leary, Bowie used the Pixies' 1990 cover as a template for his version. Compared to other tracks on the album, "I Would Be Your Slave" is more avant-garde and minimalist, based around sequences of strings and drum loops. The lyrics, described by Bowie as "an entreaty to the highest being to show himself in a way that could be understood", feature ambiguous dialogue between a disturbed protagonist and another figure, analysed by biographers as either a lover or God. Perone calls it a "song of undying devotion".

According to O'Leary, Bowie covered "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship" as a way to "make amends" for not compensating Odam when he used him as an influence for Ziggy. Concerning a character who is lonely out in space, the music is incohesive, featuring an abrasive "speed-funk backdrop" of instruments that reference science fiction programs from Space: 1999 to Star Trek. "5.15 The Angels Have Gone" is a somber song that concerns a man who feels isolated and has lost hope. The image of a lonely man who packs up and leaves town continues a theme present throughout Bowie's entire career, from songs such as "Can't Help Thinking About Me" (1965) to "Move On" (1979). Discussing the song, Bowie explained: "A man who could once see his angels – hopes and aspirations, maybe – can't see them anymore and he blames the crushing dumbness of life for it." Perone likens its angels references to Hours and the use of trains representing a change in lifestyle to "Station to Station" (1976). Musically, it sets an icy percussion backing with repetitive guitar phrase.

"Everyone Says 'Hi'" boasts a lush and sentimental arrangement to present a meditation on bereavement and denial. Like the previous track, the song's character desires to leave home for better opportunities. Thompson states that the lyrics are outlined as a series of thoughts that read like postcards. Regarding its placement on Heathen, Perone opines that the track upholds "the general sense of disillusionment and disconnection" that runs throughout the album. "A Better Future" is Bowie's plea to God for a brighter world where his daughter can grow up safe. Perone notes that the lyrics "ring true" to the context of both a personal relationship and the feeling of bereavement in New York City after 9/11. Musically, the track displays textured production with a simple melody, with electronic minimalism reminiscent of the Berlin Trilogy and the "catchy synthesiser pop" of "Dead Against It" (1993), foreshadowing the songs on the artist's next studio album Reality (2003). Musically, "Heathen (The Rays)" offers a culmination of the album's styles, particularly evoking "Sunday" and "Slip Away" with a gradually growing arrangement, and a return of the multi-layered backing vocals found throughout the entire album. Buckley opines that it's "Warszawa"-type ending leaves the listener "seemingly without hope or consultation". Regarding the subject, Bowie explained: "'Heathen' is about knowing you're dying. [...] It's a song to life, where I'm talking to life as a friend or lover."

Artwork and packaging

I think one of the subtexts for the word 'heathen' is one that is barbaric or Philistine.[...] the idea of the iconoclastic pieces in it, like the ripping of paintings and destruction of religious things.

—David Bowie on the title, 2002

The album's themes are reflected in the artwork and packaging. The artwork was photographed by Swiss photographer Markus Klinko, who took the cover photo for Bowie's wife Iman's book I Am Iman. The photo sessions took place in early 2002 and were digitally enhanced by Klinko's partner Indrani. Bowie then hired I Am Iman designer Jonathan Barnbrook to create the cover's upside-down typeface, which evokes the writings of Jacques Derrida, one of Bowie's favourite philosophers. Klinko's photograph's included in the booklet reinforce, in Pegg's words, "the sense of spiritual and discursive negation": Bowie sitting at a Spartan school-desk with is pen in the air above a blank page. Various shots depict him cutting through the pages, while his crucifix is censored in another photo. On the cover artwork itself, Bowie appears in semi-profile. Buckley states that he "looks possessed", gazing "like a grown-up Midwich Cuckoo". His eyes are blank and silvered out, which Pegg suggests represents "a state of both blindness and transcendence". Bowie explained that they were fish eyes and the artwork as a whole was intended "as a pun on Christianity". In another interview, he stated they come from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's 1929 film Un Chien Andalou.

An image included in the packaging contains three books that announce the themes: Albert Einstein's The General Theory of Relativity (1915), Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), and Friedrich Nietzsche's The Gay Science (1882). Non-literary references include various medieval and Renaissance paintings that are marred by paint splatters and knife slashes. Pegg connects these Christian images to Nietzsche's book, which particularly announced that "God is dead". The paintings defaced include: Guido Reni's Massacre of the Innocents (1611), which symbolises Bowie's fear for his daughter's future – and inevitably the 9/11 attacks; Duccio di Buoninsegna's Madonna and Child with Six Angels (1300–1305), which suggests that "the angels have gone"; Carlo Dolci's Magdalene (1660–1670), appearing in an inverted detail; and an engraved undated copy of Peter Paul Rubens' Christ and St. John with Angels. The standard jewel-case CD booklet also included a torn image of Raffaello Sanzio's St. Sebastian (1501–1502). Pegg and Buckley call the artwork one of Bowie's finest.

Release and promotion

On 15 December 2001, Bowie announced his departure from Virgin and began the process of forming his own independent label, ISO Records. Describing it as "aiming to be 'a small. mobile, intelligent unit'," he explained: "I've had one too many years of bumping heads with corporate structure. Many times I've not been in agreement with how things are done and as a writer of some proliferation, frustrated at how slow and lumbering it all is. I've dreamed of embarking on my own set-up for such a long time and now is the perfect opportunity." In March 2002, ISO entered a licensing deal with Columbia Records, who would distribute Bowie's work starting with Heathen. Columbia chairman Don Ienner offered his full support of Bowie in a released statement, praising Heathen as "a remarkable addition to [an] incredible body of work [...] I think it's the album his worldwide audience has been waiting for." Bowie was also happy with the engagement, offering commendation for the label's marketing. The deal would last for the rest of his life.

"Slow Burn" was released in Japan and Europe only on 3 June 2002 as the album's lead single in different CD formats featuring various outtakes; a UK release planned for July 2002 was cancelled. According to Pegg, a 60-second clip of Bowie and child actress Hayley Nicholas directed by Gary Koepke appeared as a television commercial to promote Heathen, but its full Koepke-directed music video remained unreleased until 2016. "Everyone Says 'Hi'" was issued as the second single on 16 September, backed by not only various Heathen and Toy tracks, but also "Safe", a reworking of a song written for but cut from The Rugrats Movie in 1998. It reached number 20 in the UK and was supported by a rare video taken from a live performance in July. "I've Been Waiting for You" was released as a single in Canada only the same month.

ISO issued Heathen in Europe on 10 June 2002 and in America the following day. It came in various CD formats, including a standard CD with the full 12-track album and a limited-edition digipack that was packaged with the Toy re-recording of "Conversation Piece" and the 1979 version of "Panic in Detroit", along with an online code to access lyrics, scrapped album artworks and two audio tracks; the Japanese release added the B-side "Wood Jackson". In December 2002, Heathen was issued on Super Audio CD, featuring a 5.1 surround sound remix of the album, extended versions of four tracks, and outtakes.

The album's thorough marketing campaign advertised Heathen as Bowie's 25th studio album and included several television appearances and interviews, various pre-release "listening events" and in America, a television commercial featuring Bowie and a young girl, which he described as a "parent-child situation". The campaign and press coverage of the Bowie-hosted Meltdown festival and the 30th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust (1972) led Heathen to become his most anticipated album in several years. As such, it peaked at number five on the UK Albums Chart, matching the performance of Hours, and remaining on the chart for 20 consecutive weeks, the artist's longest continuous chart presence since Let's Dance (1983). It also peaked at number 14 on the Billboard 200, becoming Bowie's highest charting album there since Tonight in 1984. Across Europe, Heathen reached number one in Denmark, number two in Norway, number three in France, number four in Austria, Belgium Flanders and Germany, and the top ten in Australia, Belgium Wallonia, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Sweden and Switzerland. Elsewhere, the album charted in Finland (11), Hungary (18), the Netherlands (19), New Zealand (22), Japan (26), and Spain (27).

Critical reception

Professional ratings
Aggregate scores
SourceRating
Metacritic68/100
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic
Blender
Entertainment WeeklyB+
The Guardian
NME8/10
Pitchfork7.8/10
Q
Rolling Stone
Spin
The Village VoiceC+

Heathen was Bowie's most well-received album in years. On Metacritic, the album has an overage score of 68 out of 100 based on 20 reviews, indicating "generally favourable reviews". Many reviewers felt Heathen was a return to form for the artist and his best work since Scary Monsters. In The Guardian, Alexis Petridis found a "strident, confident" album "lush with melodies" that "achieves a balance noticeably lacking in Bowie's output of the past 20 years". Although he felt it did not reach the highs of Station to Station, Low or Scary Monsters, he concluded that Heathen is "packed with fantastic songs" and is overall "the sound of a man who has finally worked out how to grow old with a fitting degree of style". Chris Jones of BBC Music found it not a return to form, but rather "a continuation of all the marvelous things we love about [Bowie]." Praising the covers and production, Jones ultimately called it a "serendipitous release" that "bursts with a positively rude health". AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine reasoned that although it doesn't break new ground, the ending result is "an understated, utterly satisfying record, [...] simply because he'd never sounded as assured and consistent since." Meanwhile, Sarah Dempster of NME opined that with the album, Bowie "remains rock's most worship-worthy oddity".

Numerous reviewers highlighted the return of Visconti. Entertainment Weekly's David Browne highlighted his return as harkening back to Bowie's late-1970s collaborations with the producer, as did Blender's John Aizlewood. Regarding the production, Fricke stated that the majority of Heathen was "the sound of Bowie essentially covering himself — to splendid, often moving effect." Pitchfork's Eric Carr similarly wrote that "Bowie is obviously never going to recapture his trend-setting finesse of yesteryear, but at least he seems okay with that. And that's this record's greatest strength." Meanwhile, a writer for Time Out magazine described the album as "a collection of strong, melodic songs executed with playful primitivism and sung with a force and passion that would be remarkable in a man half his age." Several reviewers also praised the cover songs.

Some reviewers expressed more mixed assessments. Time magazine's Benjamin Nugent found that only good songs were the covers, while Kyle Smith of People complained about a general lack of melodicism. Veteran critic Robert Christgau was also mixed in The Village Voice, naming Heathen his "dud of the month", primarily citing weak songwriting. Although he highlighted tracks such as "Cactus", "Slow Burn" and "Afraid", Aizlewood criticised the track listing as incohesive, finding they "plod" rather than "spring". In a very negative review for Uncut magazine, Ian MacDonald complained that none of the album's 12 tracks have memorable choruses or melodies, with "short-breathed and tired" phrasings and "energyless" sequences. He also cited poor track flows resulting in a disappointing and dissatisfying Bowie album.

Heathen appeared on several lists of the year's best albums and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. "Slow Burn" also received a Grammy nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards in 2003. Regarding overall reception, Bowie said that "it's been very positively received" at the time, but noticed a cliché regarding critical reviews: "It seems to be traditional now that every album since Black Tie White Noise [1993] is the best album I've put out since Scary Monsters. Inevitably, that's what I get. But this one just seems to have caught people's imaginations."

Live performances

Bowie on stage with Sterling Campbell during the Heathen Tour, 2002

From 10 May to 23 October 2002, Bowie supported the album on the Heathen Tour. After the smaller-scale Hours Tour, Bowie opted for a "less is more" approach for the Heathen Tour, stating that "touring has become harder and harder for me." The lineup featured returning musicians Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mark Plati, Mike Garson, Sterling Campbell, and Heathen players Gerry Leonard and Catherine Russell. They first made a series of festival and television appearances throughout May and early June. On 11 June, Bowie and the band appeared at New York's Roseland Ballroom and played Low and Heathen in their entireties. He stated: "The two albums kind of feel like cousins to each other. They've got a sonic similarity." In the second half of June, Bowie curated the annual UK Meltdown festival, which featured performances from himself and a variety of hand-picked artists, including the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Coldplay, Suede and performances of Philip Glass's "Low" and "Heroes" symphonies by the London Sinfonietta. These initial performances received unanimous praise and concluded with Bowie again performing Low and Heathen in their entireties.

Although Bowie intended for the tour to not be a greatest hits package, changes were made to the setlist after Meltdown. "A Better Future" and "Slow Burn" were dropped after Meltdown, while "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship" followed suit in exchange for more crowd-pleasing numbers, such as "Stay" and "Life on Mars?". Nevertheless, he continued playing most of Low and Heathen for subsequent shows. In late July, he joined musician Moby on his 12-date Area: 2 festival tour promoting his new album 18 (2002). The two had formed a friendship in 1997 after Mody remixed Earthling's "Dead Man Walking". Bowie's performances at Area: 2 were described by numerous reviewers and show-stealers. In September, Bowie made various television appearances to promote the "Everyone Says 'Hi'" single.

The tour's European leg commenced on 22 September with a show in Berlin and ended on 2 October with a show at London's Hammersmith Odeon, the venue Bowie famously killed off Ziggy Stardust at in 1973. Afterwards, the tour was extended to multiple shows in New York, where tracks from Heathen and oldies such as "Rebel Rebel" were played. In the end, the tour consisted of 36 dates, with several leisurely breaks. Bowie initially ruled out the possibility of a world tour due to his family commitments. However, the success of the Heathen Tour, and admiration for his touring band, reinvigorated Bowie's desire for larger tours, leading to the worldwide A Reality Tour the following year.

Legacy

I know how good this album is. It's an incredibly successful album for me creatively. I wouldn't change a note of it. [...] And it's given me an unbelievably buoyant kind of confidence as a writer. And I almost feel that I will be writing some of my very best work over the next few years.

—David Bowie on Heathen, 2002

According to Pegg, Heathen marked a commercial and creative resurgence for Bowie. Buckley argues that he finally found a voice in 2002 compared to the 1990s, when critics dismissed him as "genre-hopping" too old for the times. With Heathen's update of old themes into a modern settings, the public took notice of him for the first time "in a generation". Heathen went on to sell one million copies worldwide by the end of 2003. In 2016, Bryan Wawzenek of Ultimate Classic Rock placed Heathen at number 17 out of 26 in a list ranking Bowie's studio albums from worst to best, praising Bowie's comfortability on the record and calling it "distinguished, thoughtful and spirited". Including Bowie's two albums with Tin Machine, Consequence of Sound ranked Heathen number 19 in a 2018 list, with Blake Goble finding it an "atmospheric residue from Bowie's '70s efforts made in a more commercially slick and stable world".

Bowie's biographers have reacted positively to Heathen. In Bowie: A Biography, Spitz considers it one of the artist's best. Some found it an improvement over its immediate predecessors: Buckley finds it lacks the "optimism" of Earthling, while Pegg calls the songwriting an improvement over Hours. Author Paul Trynka similarly highlighted the return of Visconti as helping to ditch the "intense sonic textures, overlayered production, and the sense that Bowie was trying to hard" that pervaded its predecessors. Pegg further hails Visconti's production as "the richest, strongest sound of any Bowie album in years", particularly signaling out his work on "Afraid" and "I Would Be Your Slave". Regarding Bowie's vocal performances, Pegg positively compares them to that of "Heroes" and Scary Monsters, while Trynka considers them his finest since Baal (1982).

On the album as a whole, Buckley felt that it failed to replicate the creativity of his 1970s works, but by itself, it stands as "a valid and at times excellent piece of work". Perone names Heathen one of the artist's strongest albums in his later career, although he argues that it inevitably lies in the shadow of the 9/11 connections, as even though the songs were written before, it successfully captured the spirit of the tragedy. Pegg felt the inclusion of three covers was excessive and noted the overall lack of melodies, but "combined with superb performances, not to mention some of the finest and most probing lyrics Bowie ever wrote, the result is a positive triumph." He added that after a decade of experimentation, Heathen emerged from that decade's collaborators with "an impressive collection of songs which evoke the classic Bowie of old, but are at the same time convincingly modern in style, intent and execution."

Track listing

All tracks are written by David Bowie, and produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti, except where noted.

Heathen – Standard edition
No.TitleProducer(s)Length
1."Sunday" 4:45
2."Cactus" (Black Francis) 2:54
3."Slip Away" 6:05
4."Slow Burn" 4:41
5."Afraid"3:28
6."I've Been Waiting for You" (Neil Young) 3:00
7."I Would Be Your Slave" 5:14
8."I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship" (Norman Carl Odam) 4:04
9."5:15 The Angels Have Gone" 5:00
10."Everyone Says 'Hi'"
3:59
11."A Better Future" 4:11
12."Heathen (The Rays)" 4:16
Total length:52:08
Heathen = ヒーザン – Japanese edition
No.TitleLength
13."Wood Jackson"4:48
Total length:56:56
Heathen – 2-CD deluxe edition (Bonus disc)
No.TitleLength
1."Sunday" (Moby remix)5:12
2."A Better Future" (Air remix)4:59
3."Conversation Piece" (Re-recorded 2002)3:53
4."Panic in Detroit" (1979 outtake)2:59
Total length:17:03
Heathen – 2007 Japanese 2-CD deluxe edition (Disc 2)
No.TitleLength
5."Wood Jackson"4:45
6."When the Boys Come Marching Home"4:44
7."Baby Loves That Way"4:43
8."You've Got a Habit of Leaving"4:50
9."Safe"4:42
10."Shadow Man"4:46
Total length:45:33

Personnel

According to the liner notes and biographer Nicholas Pegg:

Charts and certifications

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