After the numb isolation of Low, hearing David Bowie proudly proclaim “I will be king, and you will be queen” in “Heroes” now-iconic title track is not unlike watching a time-lapse spring thaw. The second installment in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, “Heroes” is just as warped, fractured and neurotic as its predecessor, but where Low was almost suffocating in its minimalism, “Heroes” expands its sonic palette substantially, making room for Robert Fripp’s hyper-processed and appropriately manic lead guitar. If Low‘s prevailing mood was spookiness “Heroes”, if not exactly optimistic, at least makes room for the possibility of rescue. “‘Heroes,’ I think, is compassionate,” Bowie said in an interview at the time of the album’s release. And even at its bleakest — particularly in the twisting, tortured “Sons of the Silent Age” — Bowie still croaks, “Baby, I’ll never let you down.” The album’s opening assault is riveting, a collection of bent-metal music powered by a proto-industrial grind and centering around Bowie’s coming-unglued delivery. “Blackout,” in particular, is a sonic typhoon, Fripp’s needlepoint guitar scraping against sheets of steely synth. Bowie is frantic and mangled in the cogs, howling “Get me to a doctor’s!” like a man mid-breakdown.
Like Low, the second half of “Heroes” is mostly instrumental, and it largely picks up where those icy compositions left off. “V-2 Schneider,” the title of which is a coy hat-tip to Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider, transfers the melody of “Beauty and the Beast” to saxophone and contorts it until it’s barely recognizable; “Moss Garden” manages a kind of unsettling serenity, synthetic koto pinwheeling eerily in the synthetic breeze. Bowie returns to usher us out with “The Secret Life of Arabia,” but his voice is so mangled it barely registers as human.
It’s important to note that, for all of “Heroes”‘ feints toward positivity, the title of the album is in quotes. The choice is deliberate, and it serves two ends: to frame the very notion of heroism as something naïve and artificial, and to keep the song’s uplifting sentiment at arm’s length. Bowie may have brightened, but it’s all still a construct — a novel device for Bowie the artist to pick up, toy with, exploit and cast aside. By the time Lodger arrived two years later, he was flat on his back again.