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Listening to Reality
David Bowie stays current

It’s impossible to be excited by a new David Bowie album unless you’re a diehard fan. Charmed and entertained, yes. Maybe seduced, to a degree, by the élan with which he deploys his light, slinky vibrato or his arch humor. Or tricked into thinking there’s something interesting happening when guitar loops start coloring outside the orderly lines of his songs like a kid’s swirls of purple crayon, or his voice begins floating over opaque ambient textures. But if Bowie’s new Reality (ISO/Columbia) is a soundtrack for anything, it’s a wealthy rock star’s enjoyment of self.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hell, Bowie’s earned it. He’s never entirely left the trenches since the mid-1960s, although God knows the 55-year-old could easily afford to look down into them from his ivory tower for the rest of his life. Borrowing punk, electronica, and art music from the likes of Philip Glass to Fripp & Eno has kept him more musically relevant than many other classic rockers who peaked in the 1970s, even if he’ll never write a song as good as some of Pete Townshend’s castoffs.

Reality has been pegged by some critics as a post-9/11 statement, but then so was his last disc, 2002’s Heathen (ISO/Columbia), which was written before the attacks. Certainly Bowie’s reflecting on the changes that have occurred in his adopted New York City in numbers like Reality’s "New Killer Star," where he sings of "a great white scar/over Battery Park" and makes thinly veiled references to the Apocalypse as he puns on Bush’s Texas-bred pronunciation of "nuclear." Guest guitarist David Torn squiggles loops and feedback through the mix, providing the touch of perkiness and novelty the song needs to transcend an arrangement that would otherwise flavor it mid-tempo vanilla.

The playful sonics and tempo are cranked up a bit for Jonathan Richman’s New York ramble "Pablo Picasso," with its waggish opening line, "Some people try to pick up girls and they get called assholes/That never happened to Pablo Picasso." The result is the disc’s most rocking entry. When it comes to beauty, "The Loneliest Guy," with its floating layers of sound and Bowie’s equally disembodied vocal, wins. But it’s a haunted beauty — perhaps colored by the mood in New York in the weeks right after the World Trade Center crumbled, when passers-by observed the scene with a tear-choked silence that sifted through the entire range of emotions, and suddenly almost every man and woman with a connection to America’s great metropolis felt strangely alone.

Like that tune, "Looking for Water" — with its hammering snare drum intro and braying, angular guitar — much of the rest of this album simply pays pleasant visits to where Bowie’s been before. Or, in the case of the thin piano ballad "Bring Me the Disco King," where Jacques Brel had gone before leaving the planet.

"Looking for Water" smacks of Bowie’s ’70s period of rock-ambient experimentation with Brian Eno, which yielded the inventive albums Heroes and Lodger, and culminated in Scary Monsters (all on Virgin). The difference on Reality is that it now takes three guitarists (Bowie stalwart Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard join Torn) to play music less interesting than that made by one Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew, or, for that matter, Reeves Gabrels, whose playing and imagination made 1997’s Earthling (Virgin) the best Bowie offering since Scary Monsters.

The first pressing of Reality comes with a three-song bonus disc that should interest Bowie fans but few others. "Fly," a tribute to bad-boy DJ culture, quickly falls victim to its ’80s keyboard sounds and cliché samples. "Queen of All the Tarts (Overture)" is an airy spurt of music that meanders in search of a context. And an arena rock reworking of "Rebel Rebel" closes the set amiably enough. Like all of Bowie’s Reality, it’s reasonably entertaining and perfectly harmless. But if Bowie had felt that way about Little Richard’s recordings, he’d have never wanted to play rock and roll.

Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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