The tagline on the sticker -- "Vintage Bowie: circa 2002" -- provides the first clue about David Bowie's 25th album, Heathen. It's a "return to form" record, like the latest from U2 or Elvis Costello, meant to evoke glory days and make the faithful forget the times their shepherds got lost chasing dangerous new muses.
But Bowie needs it worse: If Costello's and U2's less successful wanderings can be remembered with smirks or mixed appreciation, Bowie's '90s oeuvre had a major image problem. He released decent tunes but caked them in laughable rock operas, drum & bass dabbling and cynical stunts. Heathen is the first time in more than twenty years that Bowie has seemed content just being Bowie. Even the album's errors have a warm familiarity to them -- his disjointed cover of the Pixies' "Cactus" will put fans in mind of his similarly odd takes on "Kingdom Come" and "Sorrow." Yet that's not to say this is comfort food. Reuniting with Low producer Tony Visconti has given Bowie reason to revisit his edgiest fertile period: the paranoid, swirling electro-rock of the late '70s. "Afraid" is a noisy, propulsive epic, the rare song that makes even canned strings sound anxious and frantic. The more Bowie swears, "I won't be afraid," the more terrified he sounds. The quieter "5.15 The Angels Have Gone" sounds spooky and cavernous, as if the entire world has dropped away. And "A Better Future" sums up its dissatisfaction in a singsong koan: "I demand a better future/or I might just stop loving you."
Bowie also returns to eliciting brilliant guest performances here; if his regulars are missed (especially pianist Mike Garson), he gets explosive, sprawling guitar work out of Pete Townshend and Dave Grohl that tears open the hearts of their tracks, leaving his vulnerable vibrato sounding more ragged than it has in years. Special mention goes to erstwhile St. Louisan Kristeen Young for her haunting backing vocals all over the record.
Although Heathen succeeds at evoking Bowie's classics, it still feels slightly incomplete. Sadly, it's his first album since 1987's Never Let Me Down without a single Bowie showstopper as good as "Ashes to Ashes" or "Thursday's Child." On much of the record, he sounds removed, adding to the impression that production has replaced craft. Yet Heathen gets pretty far on that hall-of-mirrors production; if Bowie's idea of "vintage" is to return to his dangerous period, he's still ahead of most stars in their fourth decades.