First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1
Written by John Metzger
Thu January 24, 2008, 06:45 AM CST
Much like ‘hours...’ and Heathen, Reality finds David Bowie searching for direction by scanning his past for inspiration. Mixing covers with new material in order to create a meditation on life in the modern age, he largely follows the same basic template he outlined on Heathen. This time, however, instead of remaining firmly planted in his work from the 1970s, he paints his songs with an even broader brush stroke, jumbling the many disparate strands of his career into a disorienting framework that echoes the confusion and disillusion of his lyrics. With the help of co-producer Tony Visconti, Bowie pushes his songs harder than he has done in quite some time, and the result is that Reality is his most ornery, cantankerous, and challenging endeavor since Outside.
How Bowie got to this point in his career is sketched out quite well not only by the five proper albums that were contained in his recent self-titled boxed set — Outside, Earthling, ‘hours...’, Heathen, and Reality — but also by the assortment of re-mixed cuts that were included in the package. There’s no doubt that the ways in which his songs were dissected and reassembled by others has served as an inspiration to him, and throughout Reality, he allows his various personas to commingle. The garage-y flair of Rebel Rebel, for example, is recast, with both eerie atmospherics and a dance-friendly shimmer, as New Killer Star, and the crooner that delivered Candidate sounds utterly browbeaten and weary of life on The Loneliest Guy. On Days, Bowie echoes the folk-y flair of Hunky Dory; he allows a touch of Neil Young-ian guitar to drift through Fall Dog Bombs the Moon; and the soulfulness of Young Americans seems to creep to the forefront whenever the listener least expects it. Elsewhere, he melts down the Beatle-esque grandeur of George Harrison’s Try Some, Buy Some, stuffs it inside a bizarre, calliope-style arrangement, and makes it sound like a hybrid of the Rolling Stones’ rendition of Time Is on My Side and his own work on Space Oddity. Similarly, Bowie twists his ’80s output in knots during She’ll Drive the Big Car, while Looking for Water crosses Ashes to Ashes with the rhythmic propulsion of Talking Heads.
For certain, Reality can be a little underwhelming, at first, although part of this stems from the fact that it not only is less accessible and embraceable than either ‘hours...’ or Heathen, but it also never quite coalesces as much as it should. This, of course, is part of its charm, and while Bowie’s pop-oriented sensibilities are intact, they also are subverted completely by arrangements that refuse to make way for his melodies to pass. There are moments, too, when the album sounds like a deliriously weird rendition of Earthling.
The most intriguing aspect of Reality, however, is that, for the first time in years, it feels as if Bowie is fully invested in his new material. Not that there was anything wrong with any of his recent slate of underappreciated endeavors, but for decades, there has been a cold detachment to his delivery that has been difficult to shake. With Reality, he uses his music to keep the listener at a distance. Yet, his vocals are more directly emotional and passionate. Through the anger, frustration, sorrow, angst, and complete exhaustion that he exudes, he finally makes a connection, so much so that he sounds like he’s finally comfortable with just being himself. In hindsight, it seems as if this is a place that Bowie has been trying to access within himself for quite awhile. Perhaps this progression was premeditated, or perhaps he simply stumbled into it by scouring his canon with a magnifying glass in hand. Ultimately, Reality is the outing that Bowie should have made in the 1980s, and maybe, just maybe, now that he has regained his footing, he once again will begin moving forward. ˝
Reality is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box