In the 1983 film The Hunger, David Bowie plays an elegant vampire whose blood-binges can't stop a headlong rush into decrepitude. Something similar seemed to be happening to Bowie the musician in recent times. Try as he might to reposition himself at pop's forward edge, the Thin White Duke was having a hard time getting phat again. The nadir may have come last year, when Virgin declined to release a disc of sixties material pulled from the attic.
Betrayed by one old alliance, Bowie revived another. He got reacquainted with Tony Visconti, the producer who assisted in the birth of Ziggy Stardust 30 years ago, and of the experimental Berlin albums of the late seventies. The pair picked up as though they'd never split, and withdrew to a secluded studio in upstate New York. The result of their labours there is some of Bowie's best work in years.
Heathen begins in the ruins, though the opening track, Sunday, is careful not to specify the nature of the apocalypse. Bowie's lonely patrician voice soars out over an inert hiss of choral keyboards, and a flickering pointillistic guitar loop. "Nothing remains . . . and nothing has changed, everything has changed." We're in the familiar dying universe of the Stardust era, but the gaze is broader and more troubled. A transcendent view is possible, and perhaps even unavoidable, as a dance beat slips in and the instrumentals rise into a brighter stasis that shimmers in the light of a single major-key chord. But then the sombre opening music resumes, and we have to wonder whether we've returned from a dream, or from the utopian nightmare that caused the ruin in the first place.
The album is full of such unanswered questions, most of them posed in terms of contrasts of texture and style. Everyone Says Hi turns a very English letter from home into an inscrutably lavish pop number with a tramping Motown beat and some distant doo-wop figures that don't sound the least bit ironic. Slip Away brackets a tune that resembles an old parlour song, played on an old parlour upright, with a dirty collage of sounds that suggests the dissolution of the familiar into radioactive chaos. Like Tom Waits, Bowie is peering through a smudged glass at cosy scenes from past ways of life, but unlike Waits he's not confident they still exist.
Slow Burn, the first single, merges a paranoiac lyric ("Walls shall have eyes, and the doors shall have ears") with an untroubled guitar solo by Pete Townshend, and more of that Motown beat. I Would Be Your Slave rumples a dreamy texture of strings and fretless bass with a hustling drum track that sounds as though the drummer was determined to pull the tune in a different direction from everyone else. The disjunction works, because the drumming externalizes the heat that Bowie's reflective singing describes from a defensive distance.
No two tracks on this disc sound alike, and nothing remains as it first appears. Visconti and Bowie are constantly slipping in new sounds, hardening or softening the beat, deepening or thinning out the soundscape. On some albums, this might sound like mere restlessness, but here it's an essential part of the emotional climate. Time rushes and stagnates, everything and nothing is the same. Each puzzle becomes more complex as you go on living it.
"Is there no reason? Have I stayed too long?" Bowie muses in the final track, over a shifting mass of noncommittal chords. The short, simple answer is: No, he hasn't. Bowie, at 55, still has important news to break. He needed to make this album, and we need to hear it.