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David Bowie




Guest review by Stephen Sheehan

Whenever an "elder statesman" in the rock music world releases a new recording these days, the lazy mass media reflexively throws around words like "comeback" or demonstrates that they know simple addition by telling us which record number this is, or wants to appear authoritative or "cutting edge" by using that horrible cliché "return to form." I promise that this review will have none of that so let’s move on.

My credentials? I’ve listened to every David Bowie album since "Ziggy Stardust" was brand new. I wasn’t a fan at first and to this day "Ziggy" is nowhere near my favorite Bowie record. But I know a great Bowie record from one that isn’t and I’m enormously relieved and proud to tell you that Reality is easily the strongest and definitely the most listenable record Bowie’s released since 1980's Scary Monsters. It’s consistent and intriguing, and the mixes of the songs reveal new details with every subsequent examination, thanks to the production work of long-time collaborator Tony Visconti.

So what does a 56-year-old rock star have to say for himself these days, especially one who on the surface appears so normal compared to his many past incarnations ranging from Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke? Overall it sounds as though Bowie is feeling good about who he is, where he’s at in his life and career, and it also sounds like he’s in love with love. Where his previous release, Heathen, was ominous and not an easy ride, the 50-minute Reality is upbeat, filled with hooks, buoyant and highly enjoyable.

As on Heathen, Bowie includes a couple of interesting and odd choices for cover songs. This time it’s a balls-out version of "Pablo Picasso" by Johnathan Richman and "Try Some, Buy Some" by George Harrison. But the real winners here are the opener "New Killer Star" with its classic T. Rex-y swagger, the poppy deliciousness of "Days" that deserves to be a hit radio single and the stunning jazzy closer "Bring Me The Disco King" that features just Bowie accompanied by drums and piano. While most of the song lyrics appear to be connected to some form of narrative or a sense of linear progression, Bowie still throws out a curve ball here and there like in "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" which must have been written using William Burroughs’ cut-up method that Bowie’s been employing for more than 20 years: "I’m God Damn rich / An exploding man / When I talk in the night / There’s oil on my hands / What a dog."

Compared to the few of his peers that still release new music, Reality captures Bowie's strengths as both a matured songwriter and an artist that sounds permanently frozen in the crazy dance of wide-eyed and compulsive adolescence. He might be content on certain levels at this time in his life, but he’s still short a few answers and isn’t embarrassed to admit it, sometimes overtly and sometimes woven into a web of seemingly disjointed lyrical clues and multi-dimensional production techniques. Another great thing about Bowie compared to some of his peers is that he's still singing (and singing well), unlike Lou Reed, Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan who are either mumbling or sing-speaking at best.

If Reality and Heathen are any indication, Bowie could be riding another artistic high similar to the trilogy he released with Brian Eno from 1977 through 1979. And I suppose 25 years isn’t such an unreasonable gestation period considering the fruits that have been borne.

Collectors: A limited 2-CD edition version of Reality features three extra songs including an excellent new version of “Rebel Rebel.”

back torevhead.gif (1924 bytes)   Posted Oct. 16, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Rating: Yes

Obligatory pull-quote: "Overall it sounds as though Bowie is feeling good about who he is, where he’s at in his life and career, and it also sounds like he’s in love with love."