Reality As Seen By David Bowie
On the occasion of the recent release of David Bowie much- (and justly) celebrated new album, The Next Day, I thought it was time to look back at the album that immediately preceded it, Reality – even though that album came out a decade ago. In fact, that ten-year gap, along with our new knowledge of what Bowie can still do, makes revisiting Reality a task that brings both instruction and delight.
The Age Factor and the Time Factor
Although I think The Next Day is a truly extraordinary piece of work, I wonder to what degree the laudatory reviews have been influenced by the ten-year gap since the last one and by the recognition that Bowie is now – how can this be? – sixty-six years old. Witness the way critics can’t forbear mentioning Bob Dylan’s age each time he puts out a new album – it’s like a date stamp, a best-before (or best-after?) imprimatur. And yet any serious fan of rock music can hear in The Next Day a vital, exciting work, not simply a reminder of past glory.
But the reception of Reality was a little less enthusiastic. It came only a year after the better-received Heathen (which was, I still think, a better album, so the valuation was accurate), and I’ve never thought that it was given the attention it deserved and still deserves.
How Does It Sound Now?
It sounds damned good. In fact, having worn out my CD of The Next Day (I know, I know – but I remember a time when one could literally wear out a record or a cassette), I’ve been listening to earlier Bowie a lot, and I’ve come to believe that Reality is a truly fine album. Its two covers aside (Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso,” which cracks me up every time I hear it – “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole!”— and George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some”), the album contains some of Bowie’s most intriguing late-period songwriting. The sublime “The Loneliest Guy” presages (or so it now seems) “Where Are We Now?” from the new album in its stately pace and intimate, quiet vocals. Album opener “New Killer Star” kicks the album off with energy and wit. And the final song, “Bring Me the Disco King,” is a haunting finale. Throughout, co-producers Bowie and Tony Visconti give the songs a clear, muscular sound, with the drums pleasingly prominent, all the instruments nicely separated, and Bowie’s voice riding over top, still the fluent, flexible instrument that it is has remained even in 2013.
Its Place in the Canon
Well, I’m happy to go on record as thinking that the mid-seventies “Heroes” and Low are Bowie’s finest works, followed very closely by the earlier Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, and of course Ziggy. I won’t claim that Reality is the equal of any of those five albums, and I can think of several others that probably surpass it. But it should in no way be thought of as anything but a solid, inventive, satisfying David Bowie record – which is to say, it’s better than, what, 85% of the pop music ever made? As I claimed in my review of The Next Day, Bowie is one of those very few artists who have earned the overused qualifier “genius,” and Reality is another strong bit of evidence in favour of that claim. Have another listen to it.
Check out our review of The Next Day