The artwork to David Bowie's albums has been arguably more interesting than the music in recent years. In the case of this, his 25th studio album, a welter of crossings-out, erasures and slashed canvases of religious iconography are juxtaposed with leatherbound copies of Einstein, Freud and Nietzsche to evoke the deicidic impact of that secular trinity. Would, however, that the music were quite that ambitious or quite as effective in promoting an atheistic aesthetic.
The closest Bowie gets here is the opening "Sunday", which features him in dark crooner mode over a delicate tracery of guitar loops. "Now we must burn all that we are," he muses apocalyptically, "Rise together through these clouds as on wings." But the theme of humanist emancipation is no sooner broached than abandoned for the ponderous, bass-heavy swagger of the Pixies' love lament "Cactus", one of three covers included on Heathen. It never quite returns with any conviction, as the Thin White Philosopher transfers his attention to such footling matters as life, death, love and suburban weltschmerz. So: pretty much an average day at the office for Bowie, all things considered.
Heathen has been claimed as the best Bowie album since the mid-Seventies heyday of his Berlin trilogy – and while that's perhaps stretching its charms a little further than they merit, the re-establishment of his working relationship with producer Tony Visconti has resulted in a much more assured sound than on recent albums, one reminiscent of, but not beholden to, those earlier successes. With its childlike, faux-naif chorus – "I demand a better future!" – chirped disingenuously over spiralling guitar lines, "A Better Future" recalls the compact, pop-haiku style of Low's first side; and the densely-textured disco motorik of his cover of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy's "I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship" likewise harks back to the sleek, industrial-strength grooves of Station To Station. But things are less effective elsewhere: "Slow Burn" manages to be both ragged and prissy at the same time, while a cover of Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting For You" dissipates the original's pent-up energy in a shrill, plodding version largely devoid of erotic tension.
The best track, though, is undoubtedly "Slip Away", a first cousin of sorts to "Space Oddity" and "Ashes To Ashes", in which Bowie's musings upon mortality – "Watching all the world and war torn/How I wonder where you are/Sailing over Coney Island/Twinkle twinkle, Uncle Floyd" – seem to appropriate the Ancient Egyptian notion of ancestral cosmogony, in which the stars are the souls of the dead. That would be an unlikely surmise if we were dealing with a contemporary pop idol type, but thankfully, Bowie is a pop icon from a time when stars weren't afraid to brandish their intellectual interests, rather than their ignorance. Don't bother searching for similar concerns on the new Oasis album.