Album Analysis | David Bowie - Heroes
"There's Old Wave. There's New Wave. And there's David Bowie..."
The headline, which RCA Victor used to promote the album, is pretty fitting, isn't it? In 1977, punk erupted from the underground throughout the United States and Britain (and the rest of the West to lesser extents) and a cultural backlash against "pretentious" or "overblown" music coincided with the downfall of a lot of "dinosaur rock" - leaving David Bowie, and many other artists, at a crossroads.
Germany, which helped pave the way for a lot of punk and art rock, was a little bit different. Bowie's 'Berlin Trilogy' began in January with Low, and "Heroes" - the only album in the trilogy to truly be recorded and mixed in Berlin - is a natural evolution of sorts, but also provides a fairly distinct collection. If there's one major event instrumental to the sound of Heroes that occurred in between the two albums, it's Kraftwerk's Trans Europa Express. The electronic pioneers from Düsseldorf successfully incorporated elements of progressive music into electronic music, creating a mechanical, rhythmic, and sometimes horrifying atmosphere that changed the face of music. Without Trans Europa Express, there would be nothing as great as "Heroes".
"Heroes" is an interesting album in Bowie's career. While Station to Station and Low represent the musician at a spiritual rock bottom, indulgent in coke and the high-class lifestyle that comes with being a star, "Heroes" showcases a musician gradually recovering and maturing from his lowest points, yet suffering a paralysis of sorts. Bowie experienced great anxiety and tension from the modern world and everything going on around him, yet couldn't seem to break free, regardless of how hard he tried. It's not a concept album by any means - more of a thematic album - however it proves a perfect representation of who Bowie was as an artist and where his career was at this time.
Low and Heroes are two very different albums, which is a bit odd given there were only 9 months in between their releases. The former is an alienating and atmospheric album that relied on electronic music as much as it did with rock. By no means is it a straightforward rock album, nor an upbeat album in general, but it's quite colorful and rich as its orange album cover may hint at. It's fun and playful, melancholy and misery, and many of the B-Side's instrumentals continue this. On the contrary, "Heroes"' black-and-white and ominous album cover mixed with a pale and seemingly-matured Bowie reflects the album's mystery. This isn't as playful and rich as its predecessor; it's cold, mechanical, jarring, beautiful and horrifying at times. Lyrically, it's darker than before, and even the glam-meets-electronic sound of songs like Blackout can't nullify this darkness - Blackout's industrial glam best represents the paranoid and hallucinatory schizophrenia of the rest of the album, and works as one of the most terrifying tracks in Bowie's massive catalogue. On the opener, the line "there's slaughter in the air, protest on the wind" represents a lot about Germany in the late '70s. If this album was meant to capture the zeitgeist of Berlin, it succeeded.
It's easy to write this off as a failed, or at least subpar, successor to Low. People write it off too easily and triumphantly declare its predecessor as the ultimate Bowie album. Not to degrade Low, but "Heroes" is far more dense and complex than its already-abstract predecessor. Its songs are more mechanical and industrial, avant-garde and experimental even for Bowie, and not as easily accessible. Is it necessarily better than its predecessor? Maybe, maybe not, but it's at least on par. Low doesn't have anything as shattering as "Heroes", but "Heroes" doesn't have an instrumental as moody and genuine as Warsazswa. "Heroes" is a rich and dense album that's less easy to love, and it takes time to realize that it's not just "that album with the song Heroes on it", as it's often perceived.
So what does "Heroes" mean? It's a dark, mysterious, and heavily thematic album that explores the horrors and anxieties of the Cold War. With no linear plot or concept, the album bounces around the emotional and political turmoil of a nuclear war, whether it's at the state of brinkmanship, or it's started. The dark and often bleak lyrics create depressing and distinctly cold imagery, just like in Trans Europa Express (to an extent, as some songs are upbeat with dark lyrics) and Iggy Pop's The Idiot (which Bowie and Eno were heavily involved in). The title track's lyrics were directly influenced by the Berlin Wall, and the Hansa Tonstudio was only a few hundred feet away from the Wall. The political turmoil and constant threat of nuclear destruction at the time influenced a lot of Krautrock and punk rock, and Bowie wasn't exempt. The title track details a relationship separated by a wall, only to be "heroes" and die tragic deaths in the most emotionally hollowing song ever recorded. Blackout and Sons of the Silent Age detail the paranoia and surrealism surrounding the concept of war, or the "What the fuck just happened to the world?" spirit. The fast tempo and straightforward rock songs that largely compose the A-Side are all meant to be exhilarating and yet invoke an atmosphere of dread and paranoia, and they do the job perfectly.
The B-Side travels through different concepts; assuming, in the theme, that nuclear war has started and destruction has already started, the ambient instrumentals travel through dread and minimal horror (Sense of Doubt), tranquil surrealism (Moss Garden, which is one of collaborator Brian Eno's greatest instrumental compositions in his massive discography), dread in a ravaged world (Neuköln, which is likewise one of his greatest ambient pieces in addition to being downright terrifying; the buildup and high-tuned saxophone brings havoc), and the cultural fusion and mystery of The Secret Life of Arabia, which leaves the album off on a cliffhanger, which makes some sense analyzing through the lens of a nuclear war. This interpretation is less common, but is one way to understand a difficult and abstract album.
While "Heroes" is a consistently great album, there is one clear standout track: Heroes, which is widely regarded as Bowie's greatest and most iconic song for many reasons. It's intense, and few songs can match its power and grace. Bowie's lyricism never got better; the way he conveys the paranoia, romance, and hopelessness of not only his personal life, but of the Cold War and the divisions of the Berlin Wall is incomparable. Each note is used perfectly. Fripp's guitar sound is incredibly unique and experimental, and the plodding rhythm and Wall of Sound create an absolutely suffocating atmosphere. The crescendo and the emotional buildup at the end combined with how Bowie's vocals morph into something distinctly-not-Bowie really makes the song so much stronger. By the final minute of the song, where everything is building up and reaching the breaking point, its aura is inescapable. Without a doubt, it's one of the greatest songs of all time. For more context on the song's creation, here is a fascinating video where Tony Visconti breaks down the recording process of "Heroes". It gives more context to the song, and the entire process to record one song is fascinating. Going back to the release of the song, the thought that it was a commercial failure is now hard to think, as today it is Bowie's most recognizable and iconic song.
It's fascinating how an artist can further make enormous leaps from an album as great as Low in less than a year. Comparisons aside, "Heroes" is an essential in Bowie's catalogue in order to understand the man behind the personas. Is it the best album of 1977? Maybe, but it's fair to say that Bowie managed to release the two best albums of that year. Given how great of a year 1977 was for music, particularly in the art rock and punk scene, this accolade is very impressive. Furthermore, this is the same year that Bowie and Eno worked on many projects. Eno predated new wave with Before and After Science, made another ambient release with Cluster, and worked with Ultravox and Iggy Pop. Bowie released Low in January and also worked with Iggy, but suffered from various drug addictions and depression while in Berlin. Despite these personal obstacles, "Heroes" is the definitive Cold War record.