David Bowie had been burnt by Virgin’s refusal to release the Toy album. According to Tony Visconti, Bowie was “hurt terribly” by the label’s actions.
On the morning of 13 December 2001, Bowie’s business representatives, RZO, sent a letter to Virgin, informing the label that their failure to release Toy was directly responsible for the decision. “We respectfully decline your attempts to negotiate a new contract in light of the missed option pick-up of a year ago,” it said.
The singer chose instead to release Heathen on his own label, ISO.
I’ve had one too many years of bumping heads with corporate structure. Many times I’ve not been in agreement with how things are done and as a writer of some proliferation, frustrated at how slow and lumbering it all is. I’ve dreamed of embarking on my own set-up for such a long time and now is the perfect opportunity.
I want to keep the whole experience at a human level. To characterize ISO, I think I would use guitarist Robert Fripp’s phrase and describe it as aiming to be ‘a small, mobile, intelligent unit’.
13 December 2001
This was followed in March 2002 with an announcement that the marketing and distribution of Heathen would be handled by Columbia Records.
It’s terrific that David is so excited about Heathen and that he’s sharing that excitement with the public through all of the promotional work he’s doing. Heathen is not just a great David Bowie album: It’s a great album, period. The public will discover this for themselves very shortly, and I think they’ll be responding in a big way.
billboard.com, 31 May 2002
Upon its release, Bowie expressed relief that Columbia made no effort to enforce changes to the album. “Absolutely no attempt was made on their part to guide me into making a chart-oriented record,” he said. “What I brought them is what they took – and with great enthusiasm.”
Heathen was released in Europe on 10 June 2002, and in America the following day. It received widespread acclaim, with Music Week described it as “a stunning return to form”, while Rolling Stone stated that Bowie was “back to playing Bowie, with class”.
In addition to the standard 12-song album, Heathen was initially also released as a two-CD digipak set, with a bonus disc containing four tracks: remixes of ‘Sunday’ and ‘A Better Future’ by Moby and Air respectively; the Toy version of the 1969 song ‘Conversation Piece’; and a 1979 studio re-recording of ‘Panic In Detroit’.
A Japanese edition contained the bonus song ‘Wood Jackson’, which until a late stage was considered for inclusion on the standard album, and was later released as a b-side on some variants of the ‘Slow Burn’ and ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi” singles.
In December 2002 Heathen became Bowie’s first album to be released as an SACD. This contained a 5.1 surround sound mix by Tony Visconti, with slightly extended versions of four songs. This edition also contained 5.1 versions of ‘When The Boys Come Marching Home’, ‘Wood Jackson’, ‘Conversation Piece’, and ‘Safe’.
On Heathen I put all of the ambient effects in the rear speakers, like the wash of keyboards… With Heathen and Reality I also had the benefit of Allaire’s big room, and so I would always put the drum room mics in the rear, creating the feeling that you’re actually in the room itself when it was recorded, and it is an awesome sound.
Sound On Sound, October 2003
Bowie underwent an extensive promotional campaign for Heathen, with numerous interviews and media performances. These included US TV appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, Today, Live By Request, and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, all inside a nine-day period in June 2002.
Heathen peaked at number five in the UK, and 14 on the US Billboard 200. It was a top 10 hit in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, and topped the charts in Denmark and Malta.
The album nominated for the UK’s Mercury Music Prize, and ‘Slow Burn’ received a Grammy nomination for Male Rock Vocal Performance.
Heathenism is a state of mind. You can take it that I’m referring to one who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any Gods presence in his life. He is the 21st century man. However, there’s no theme or concept behind Heathen, just a number of songs but somehow there is a thread that runs through it that is quite as strong as any of my thematic type albums.
Bowie’s 36-date Heathen Tour began with a warm-up show at New York’s Roseland Ballroom on 11 June 2002, and concluded at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre on 23 October. The first night was notable for back-to-back performances of the Low and Heathen albums.
After the opening New York dates, the tour took in a performance at the Meltdown Festival in London, followed by dates in Europe and North America. The final dates included stops in each of New York’s five boroughs, dubbed the New York Marathon Tour.
All you can do as an artist is do what you can at the time that you’re doing it. With Heathen I just feel maybe this one is possibly… I’m pretty much on top of my game at the moment. I’m writing very, very well, I think. And I’m relating it to my own work. It’s not like I’m trying to put it against anybody else. But looking at my own work I think the work that I’m writing at the moment is exceptionally good, and I’m hoping that I’m going to continue like this, in which case I’m going to have an exciting future.