He's best-known for his outer-spaciness, but David Bowie is at his best when he's earthbound. The head-in-the-clouds abstractions of Space Oddity and The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust feel insignificant compared with the dark, Dylanesque folk of Hunky Dory or the anguished R&B of Young Americans.
So it's disappointing -- though not altogether surprising, given that he's found little success experimenting with futurism on albums like Earthling -- that on his new CD, Heathen, Bowie has reverted to his man-from-the-moon persona. It's a move sure to be celebrated by those who experienced Bowie's outré glam channeled through films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Velvet Goldmine, but for anyone with a critical reading of his long career, the album is a drowsy downer unconvincingly cloaked in interplanetary piffle.
Heathen begins portentously, with Bowie crooning in the big, theatrical voice of the Ziggy Stardust era about finding "signs of life" and other such vital matters of the universe. From there, his trip through space becomes even more self-important, as he offers up unintentional howlers ("I shot my space gun / and, boy, it really felt good") and even a pomp-ridden cover of the Pixies' great fractured punk song "Cactus." "For in truth," Bowie intones on "Sunday," the opening track of Heathen, "it's the beginning of nothing." He's got that right.
Fronting Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry ironically presented himself as the most decadent of lounge singers, but in his solo career he's coming closer to the real thing. In the seventies, Ferry offered radical takes on songs by everyone from Dylan to Smokey Robinson, and on his 1999 album, As Time Goes By, he dutifully crooned standards by the likes of Cole Porter.
Ferry could seem too reverent toward the material on As Time Goes By, but his new album, Frantic, feels a lot looser (and less respectful) even as it revisits the singer's favorite sources (Dylan, Leadbelly). A cover of Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" transforms the song into an exuberant kiss-off (Ferry even offers a trilly take on Dylan's creaky intonations), while his tremulous warble gives Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" an off-kilter Appalachian bluesiness reminiscent of James Carter.
All of the remakes, however, are trumped by the album's closer, "I Thought," a new song co-written with Brian Eno. With its echoing guitar twangs and twinkling, kaleidoscopic keyboard playing, it possesses the end-of-the-night reverie of Roxy Music's "More Than This" and "Same Old Scene." It's the sort of truly satisfying last dance Ferry hasn't been able to conjure with his songbook-driven seriousness.