David Bowie

Reality

(Sony; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 15 November 2003

Never really could get close to David Bowie. Weirdo factor aside, his penchant for covers, his unchanging urge to "play some music and dance," has always kept me at a distance that I thought was wrought by basic generational non-comprehension. This guy should have been artistically dead eight years ago, but he refuses to be ignored. Flaming shirts, cadaverous face and figure, disco beats and weird white prince ego oh my! It just looks like musical irrelevance is something Bowie can't put on his plate.

Reality could have been his final cry as he threw himself into the mainstream. Nope. It's just as distinctively as we've come to know. It could have been his final ejection into the stratosphere of musical oddity, where he would spin off into the distance as the flaming comet that started as an institution and ended as a petty novelty. Nope. Bowie is most definitely grounded. So what exactly is Reality? A pretty good record. That's it. No proclamations, no proselytizing. It's so un-grand that it doesn't seem like it could've possibly come from the same guy who did Outside or the critically blistered Hours, or, to reach far back into my reference bag, Hunky Dory.

Or maybe it's not so surprising. After so many years of trying to release the album that would rocket him to the apotheosis of musical inventiveness once again, and after risking breaking a hip at least four of those times, Bowie has realized that, aw what the fuck, he's old. It was high time to start being safe. And thus the man who should've died lives on more quietly and less brashly than he's used to. Honestly, it's not a bad thing to come to terms with. Reality is just that; coming to terms with it.

It does make for a relatively unexciting, if decent, record. Whether he realizes it or not, Bowie hits his highest point quickly; opener "New Killer Star," knocked me fairly flat when I first heard it on my college radio station, and it's only aged well. Playing with a few really hypnotic hooks, anchored in a steady bass guitar, the song shifts in and out of a synth-haunted guitar jangle/bass bouncing hook before skyrocketing to another hook inhabited by a distorted, angry guitar, before finally shifting into its awesome chorus. Two runs through, and Bowie tastefully concludes the song, resisting any attempt to overdraw it.

"Pablo Picasso" takes advantage of Bowie's vocal versatility, a great bass, and some chunky synth effects under a jangling guitar to make for a driving song that's not stunning, but solid enough. "Solid enough" will quickly become a theme for most of these tracks. "Never Get Old," is pure Pixies-covering, without even a hint of covering it over. The plucked guitar and insistent bass counteracted by Bowie's soft intonations and the occasional "Better take care," by supporting vocals. The song then shifts dramatically into a 60's guitar-massaged segment before defusing itself in pure 80's bombast. The only predictable problem in this album is defined in "Never Get Old"; Bowie tries a couple too many ideas in some of these songs and it just doesn't pan out a number of times (see also: "She'll Drive the Big Car"). It's in his tighter, grounded numbers, like "New Killer Star," or "Looking for Water," where he shines. There's the occasional quirkiness that does raise itself up, but it's mostly in the form of rudimentary keyboard oddity, or complete retro-synth. His voice is still unmistakably Bowie, and thankfully the production gives it full display, even while adding some unnecessary electronic surface flourishes.

While it is somewhat all over the map and scatterbrained, Reality ultimately makes for a pretty good listen. To be sure, it will end up collecting some dust. But every once in a while, when you're on your way to a hip party, you'll play "New Killer Star," and be remotely aware that you look cool listening to a guy who's twice your age. Or when you're depressed you'll listen to "The Loneliest Guy," a standout here, and smoke cigarettes to mix with its moody, resigned, warbling atmosphere. And who knows, at some point you might just be looking through your collection and say, "hey, I remember that Bowie album. What was it, three albums ago?" What do I mean, three albums ago? Well, kids, the fact is that if Reality is any indication, we're just imagining Bowie's foot in the grave, and he's got a bit more to share. Hell, at least we know he's not doing it for the money; when you're the richest man in rock, with hundreds of millions of albums sold, you can fight being old all you want without a care about whether your album's going to sell. Let's just hope it doesn't come at the price of us caring about what he does anymore. In Bowie we still (kinda) trust. Wait, what am I saying? I never was really close to the guy to begin with. Reality keeps it that way, for better or for worse.