Conversation Piece

Over the past few months I’ve been listening closely to Heathen and haven’t tired of it at all, despite some minor annoyances. Echoing many others, the interesting thing about this album is that Bowie, finally and for once, consistently makes good on closing out the amazing legacy of his golden years (1970-1980). Heathen (see a couple of reviews: AllMusic, The Guardian) ripped Bowie out of the doldrums of the 80s and 90s, his “Phil Collins” years (punctuated with some brilliance), but now finally displaying a Bowie comfortable with himself, i.e. not having to put any heightened effort or trendy contrivance into being ahead of the curve — something that became irksome to his longterm listeners and I think tiresome to Bowie himself. He could now stand back and draw upon other marginalized musical geniuses such as the Popul Voh (Florian Fricke)-inspired “Sunday” the album’s opening track. The music was therefore bound to be philosophical and meditative (“a rumination on death, loss and lack of belief”/”This would be a century of a cold, refined barbarism, a world fit for fanatics of all stripes”) interlaced with much tenderness, nostalgia, wisdom, and most eerily striking, is counterposed with a palpable sense of foreboding and unease (much ink has been spilt about the album’s relationship to the events of 9/11). Aside from the obvious gems “Slip Away“, “Slow Burn“, “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” the biggest surprise of all is the very low-key bonus “Conversation Piece”, a reworking of a song originally from a promising but ultimately middling 1969, on the cusp of greatness, i.e. 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World. Here’s the very excellent Chris O’Leary’s explication of the song (the recording below is a superior version to Chris’ link):

The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

The grim reality for those living the “life of the mind” anticipates the professionalized resentment, disappointment and nihilism so characteristic of current academia’s inauthenticity, pockmarked by fanaticism, pseudo inquiry, authoritarianism, epistemic arrogance and entitlement. Here is maestro Mike Garson’s brief thoughts on this song. High praise indeed from someone so vital to Bowie’s career.

It’s in my top 10 of David’s songs

Here too is an academic piece entitled “The Light that Shines Above the Grocer’s Store: David Bowie’s Domestic Spaces” written by Meagan Wilson.

Heathen is an immersion into the last gasps of one man’s spiritual search, a search that seems fraught from the first.