The album’s themes
Despite some conjecture that parts of Heathen were written in response to 9/11, David Bowie had finished composing the songs prior to the attacks. According to Visconti, “only a few lines were amended after September 11.”
Bowie’s previous released album, ‘hours…’, had contained meditations on ageing, family and relationships. While sonically quite different, Heathen continued Bowie’s exploration of the sense of anxiety and isolation in the modern world.
I always write about the same things. I just approach them differently each time, I think. The subject matter is… I’ve got a thematic device, really, that I’ve used ever since the Sixties, which is basically the isolation of the human and how he stands in relationship to his universe, and how he struggles to find some connection with that. I think they’re really big questions, and impossible ones to answer. But it doesn’t stop a writer forever posing them and trying to answer them, or trying to get near.
And I think it’s changed its guise in all the years that I’ve been writing. But I think it’s still basically the same subject matter, and Heathen is about the same stuff. It’s the spiritual search, tries to identify the anxieties that one goes through.
In an interview with Swedish radio to promote Heathen, Bowie was asked about the purpose of art in its various forms, and how it helps viewers understand the time of its creation.
It’s like this – It’s a head-spinning dichotomy – of the lust for life against the finality of everything. It’s those two things raging against each other, you know? And that produces these moments that feel like real truth, because when you say, “Isn’t it great to be alive… and it’s all gonna fuckin’ end!” those two points together are like, Ahhhh. That is the entire story, right there. That’s it. There’s no more to be said. It’s like, how do you come to terms with that situation? Is there any comfort factor to be found in there at all? What is the point of all this?
And that’s kind of what Heathen is. I love this work. I love this life. I’m so greedy not to want to give it up. I just don’t want to give it up. It’s hard to give it up. This album is about that. And it was this place that helped me do it, I’m telling you. I really felt that I knew what I was as a writer.
Interview magazine, June 2002
Tony Visconti put his own spin on the album’s questioning spirit during an interview to promote Heathen.
David was very jovial, but he would go somewhere in the mornings when he was writing these songs. You could see he was really struggling with questions. After a few weeks I said: ‘It seems like you’re addressing God himself.’ The concept of Heathen is a godless century. He was addressing the bleakness of our soul… and maybe his own soul.
The Guardian, 5 June 2002
Heathen was recorded in the months after Bowie’s mother Peggy died at the age of 88, at a nursing home in St Albans, Hertfordshire. Her death was announced on 2 April 2001, with Bowie’s spokesman Alan Edwards saying: “I can confirm it is sadly true. It’s just come out of the blue.”
A month later, on 11 May, Bowie’s old friend Freddie Buretti died of cancer in Paris. Buretti had designed several of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era costumes, and was a key figure in the development of the singer’s glam look.
At the time Bowie was planning to return to the recording studio with Tony Visconti to begin work on Heathen. Yet his primary focus was his daughter Lexi – Alexandria Zahra Jones – who was born on 15 August 2000.
Caring for his infant daughter was a source of much joy for Bowie, and he vowed to be present for her and avoid some of the mistakes he had made with his son Duncan in the 1970s.
I really, really love it. To be honest, I really have to pull myself together weekly to focus on my music that sometimes it almost feels like a distraction. The music, I mean. But I think I’m beginning to find a sense of balance between daddyfying and workifying. Mind you, the next album might have lyrics like: “the wheels on the bus go round and round…”
BowieNet webchat, 4 June 2001
Concern for the world into which he had brought a new life became one of Bowie’s preoccupations, an anxiety which infiltrated his lyrics on songs such as ‘A Better Future’.
The only difference – possibly the additive to this particular series of songs – is that I’m a new parent again, and so I think I look at some of these situations through the eyes of my daughter, and think for her in a way, and maybe examine or weigh the future up in terms of her experiencing it as being more central and more important than my feelings. Now that I’m a new father again maybe I don’t put the weight of my opinions as being as important as they would have been if I were just not a new parent, you know?
I think we had in the Nineties far higher expectations of what the new century and new millennium would bring us, and I think thus far it’s been the most utter disappoint, and almost there’s a certain ominous quality to it which is really quite scary and I think having now brought children into this environment, and in this world, it increasingly focuses one’s thoughts on where the hell are we going, and what kind of tragedy are we bringing upon ourselves. I’m actually very negative about these situations, much to my friends’ disgruntlement. I don’t think we evolve and I don’t think we’ve progressed, and I think we are bound to make all the same mistakes that we always made. It’s as depressing as that! [laughs]
Bowie also found comfort in growing older, which gave him a heightened sense of self and purpose.
I don’t find it a problem being old and I don’t mind not thinking like I used to think when I was young. I don’t have that thing about “I’m old but I feel like an 18-year- old inside!” I don’t. I feel like exactly what I am, which is 55 going on 56, and it seems to be a pretty cool age to be. I’ve experienced a lot and have a sense of who I am that maybe I didn’t have a few years ago.
There are no yearning ambition any more. There are things I’d like to do but none are crucial. I have a sense that I’ve become the person that I always should have been. It’s been a kind of cyclical, almost elliptical, journey at times but I feel like I’ve finally arrived at being instead of becoming, which is kind of how I feel about being young – there’s always a sense that you’re becoming something, that you’re going be shocked by something new or discover something or be surprised by what life has in store. I’m still surprised at some things, but I do understand them, I know them. There’s a sense that I know where I am now. I recognise life and most of its experiences, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn’t stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve my questions about it. And I probably will. I think I’ll still be doing it – hopefully – like Strauss, at 84.
The Observer, 9 June 2002