Crawdaddy JANUARY 1978 - by Ira A. Robbins


Smarts And Kraftwerk

David Bowie is the most inconsistently appealing genius in rock. With his chameleon ability to change from disco to space-rock to romantic ballads to astringent mechano-music, Bowie has demonstrated that he can master and present music any way he cares to. Add that to his interest in salvaging/controlling careers of aimless visionaries like Iggy the Stooge and Mott The Hoople, his film interests and his penchant for working/writing/recording with various like-minded talents and you come up with a major musical force of the '70s. Regardless of the fact that very little of his recent musical output has been as enjoyable as it has been admirable, Bowie is a fascinating figure of limitless imagination.

Ever since the Diamond Dogs album and tour, Bowie has experimented in many areas; exploring, assimilating, and creating. First it was American R&B with Young Americans, then hard-edged arcana via Station To Station, and disposable song fragments melded with soundtrack snippets aided by Eno (Low). Now, Bowie it doing a bit of a recap on "Heroes". Working with the master of influence, Brian St. Eno, reclusive guitar fiend Robert Fripp, and the D. Bowie pick-up squad of Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis, Bowie forges a blend of melody, lyrical insanity, and Berlin-tinged pallor that recalls the finer moments of the last two studio trips as well as a few welcome flashes from the Aladdin Sane era. As ever, the results are mystifying and challenging, though more rewarding than the dadaist simplicity of Low.

On examination, "Heroes" breaks into convenient sections. To work backwards, the second side is largely composed of three BowiEno instrumentals: Sense Of Doubt, Moss Garden and NeuköIn. Not being a fan of non-vocal wanderings around the T. Dream area of vacuity, I find very little to get excited about. However, there are some standout moments that prove Bowie's versatile sense of composition. The side begins with a quasi-Kraftwerk (Give-Germany-back-to-the-Germans) sound, V2 Schneider. With a much better sense of direction than the robotic Teutons can muster, Bowie brings together strong doses of It's All Too Much and Autobahn, full of Vocoder and synthesiser. The three "conceptuals" run together with instrumentation forming the primary distinction. Sense Of Doubt builds a moody wash around a stern piano bass, while Moss Garden is a soporific workout on a Japanese instrument that sounds like a thumb piano. The least acceptable of the triumvirate is Neuköln which has the thin duke showing off on sax, an instrument Bowie should retire. His "avant garde" wailings are fairly awful, but then freeform jazz is one of those things...

Going for the inner groove, "Heroes" ends on a typical Bowie absurdity called The Secret Life Of Arabia which could have been a demented outtake from the Young Americans Philly sessions. Always leave them guessing.

Now, getting back to the beginning. The five tracks on the first side contain more accessible Bowie than any other recent album. Despite painfully convoluted themes and obscure references, Bowie manages to string together cohesive musical moments that recall a much earlier era - Ziggy Stardust, almost.

Beauty And The Beast lopes off to a strong start, with female choir parroting David's theorizing about good and evil. Conceptual art fans will recognise the calling card of one Chris Burden in the lyrics of Joe The Lion:

Nail me to my car
and I'll tell you who you are...

About halfway through, Bowie drops the chaotic backdrop and sidles up to the mike for a bridge straight out of the Spiders days. Amazing bit of hat tipping, then back into tho fray, all without skipping a texture.

The title track is easily the best thing Bowie has put on plastic in three years. With Eno's spine-tingling synthi-guitar whistling in the low foreground, and a powerful Beach Boys rhythm section holding up the background, Bowie delivers a low-key (yet violently passionate in spots) vocal that displays everything he can do. The lyrics are double entendre confusion, and the German influence (result of his residence in Berlin) is clear. Bowie's control and sensitivity are the determining factors, but Eno's contribution, harking back to his first (and best) solo album cannot be overlooked. Interestingly, the German and French issues of "Heroes" contain translated vocals sung by Bowie on this track. The timbre of language must be essential to the tone of the song.

Sons Of The Silent Age sounds like a leftover from glitter era Bowie. Nasal and self-parodic, Bowie's voice sounds like a flashback - Dylan on The Boxer. The music swirls and meanders, like the opening of Diamond Dogs, as the vocal builds to a climactic finish, leaving the door open for more of the some on future projects. Come back to us Bowie!

The side ends with Blackout. Manic panic and Bowie shrieking Hiroshima poetry over a steady surge of rhythm. "Too high a price to drink rotting wine / From your hands / Get me to a doctor's / I've been told someone's back in town / The chips are down / I just cut and blackout / I'm under Japanese influence / And my honour's at stake." Bowie's dreams must be bizarre, but I'm glad that he can translate nightmares to music so well.

Write on, David. Whatever it is you have to say.