While many artists are writing dark, introspective songs that reflect these uncertain times, David Bowie no stranger to bleak, claustrophobic material has filled his exultant new album, Heathen, with the joy of creation and the possibility of a brighter future.
"My daughter is 21 months old," Bowie said, "and the first thing that happened when she entered our world is that my priorities rapidly changed, and it was a case that I'm not #1 anymore, nor is my wife [Iman]. The rest of my life will be spent making sure my daughter's future is secure, so obviously my focus as a writer is going toward a world for others, not necessarily for me."
As inspirational as Bowie's home life was on his songwriting, another factor contributed to the lush and dynamic sound of Heathen: the reunion of Bowie and producer Tony Visconti for the first time since a falling out following 1980's Scary Monsters. One of the most important producers of the glam rock era, Visconti worked with Bowie on many of his albums in the '70s, including the seminal Berlin-era records Low, Heroes and Lodger.
"Visconti and I have been talking about doing this album for five years," Bowie said. "We got together in the '90s and put aside our differences. We both are more mature about relationships and situations, and we patched things up well and we're very tight friends now."
While the angular guitars, sweeping arrangements, electronic experimentation and dramatic vocal delivery on Heathen echo various moments in Bowie's career, the overall sound of the record is as fresh as it is familiar.
"We didn't want to repeat what we did in the past because people hold our albums in high esteem and we didn't want to cheapen that," Bowie said. "It was on my shoulders to produce structures lyrically that were strong enough to produce an autonomous piece of work so that we didn't have to pull back into the past."
As impressive as originals like the evocative first single "Slow Burn" (which features galvanic guest guitar by Pete Townshend), the largely ambient "Sunday" and the buoyant, jangly "A Better Future" are, the three covers on Heathen are equally entertaining. Bowie tackles "Cactus" by the Pixies, "I Took a Trip" by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and, with the help of Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, "I've Been Waiting for You" by Neil Young.
Bowie's take on the Pixies came out of pure reverence: "I thought they were probably the very best band in America during the '80s," he gushed. "I couldn't believe they had no recognition in America and they were loved in Europe. Frank Black was such a great songwriter, and I wanted to pluck one of his songs and do something with it as of a mark of respect."
Maybe so, but "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship," Bowie's Legendary Stardust Cowboy cover, surfaced more out of guilt.
"The only reason I covered the Ledge song is someone clued me in that he had a little Internet site," Bowie recalled, "and on the second page in scrawling handwriting he says, 'The English guy David Bowie stole my last name, Stardust, and used it for his Ziggy. I think he owes me.' I thought, 'Oh God, you are so right.' I had this huge wave of guilt, and I thought, 'I will cover one of your songs and get you some royalties.' "
Jon Wiederhorn, with additional reporting by Kurt Loder