The New York Times - 14th September 2003

David Bowie Returns to Earth (Loudly)

By Mim Udovitch

IN an act of characteristic understatement, David Bowie describes his 26th studio album, "Reality," as "a bit thrusty." Written and recorded shortly after last year's marathon five-borough mini-tour of New York City, "Reality" is more than a bit thrusty. The rush of drums and electric guitar that opens the 10th and title track alone is such an adrenaline shot to the heart that the song makes you feel that Mr. Bowie and his spectacularly hard-rocking band might be about to materialize in your living room ready for an encore.

The record is also - perhaps because of that tour, perhaps simply because Mr. Bowie is a longtime resident of lower Manhattan - more than a bit New Yorky. Among the many references to the city's contemporary landscape are the opening lyrics to the first track, "New Killer Star": "See a great white scar/ Over Battery Park/ Then a flare glides over/ But I won't look at that scar." At least for New Yorkers, and quite possibly for everyone, the record's underground urban power, its search for order amid chaos and rubble give it a distinctly post-9/11 feel. Mr. Bowie is not a political artist, and the record is not a political statement. In fact, "New Killer Star" itself is not about Sept. 11, per se, any more than "Heroes" is about heroes, if only because the songwriting of the elusive and allusive Mr. Bowie is rarely that straightforward. But like much of Mr. Bowie's music, "Reality" is keenly attuned to the present.

We live in a time when almost everything that goes out of its way to proclaim itself real is at least mildly suspect. "Reality" may not be a direct comment on this phenomenon - Mr. Bowie's album titles are rarely that straightforward either - but in contrast to the gently respectful, candlelit all-star tributes and other "real" responses that immediately followed the events of two years ago, the record rocks with the actual, explosive dynamic of sudden trauma and its human aftermath.

Rocking hard is not a novelty for Mr. Bowie. He has kicked out the jams from the start of his career (check out the version of "White Light/White Heat" on the newly remastered D. A. Pennebaker documentary "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars"). Nor are examinations of death and the near-madness that accompanies it anything new for him. After all, his first hit, "Space Oddity," featured an astronaut protagonist who steps out of a mundane and earthbound life and into the unknown whatever-it-is that lies beyond. But on "Reality," the questions about that whatever-it-is are less figurative. "Again and again/ He looks me in the eye, and he says he's got/ His mind on a countdown 3, 2, 1," sings Mr. Bowie on "Never Get Old." The countdown is a small inside reference to the one at the beginning of "Space Oddity." But the title leaves little doubt that this time the countdown is to a literal death.

IT'S a rather singular accomplishment that "Reality" makes the personal contemplation of mortality sound so crashingly, defiantly vital. Many of its songs - "New Killer Star"; a cover of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso"; "Never Get Old"; and, especially, the title track - are so very thrusty that it's easy to imagine the artistically inclined baby boomers who have been with Mr. Bowie since the beginning getting rocked right out of their Eames recliners.

In short, it has all the alchemy of a great rock record - songs about death that were made to be played loud and live. (They were also made to be sold live; in October, he will be embarking on his first major world tour in almost a decade.) Even in a CD player, the impeccable production of Tony Visconti - buried, exultant background vocals, random discordant touches and vibrant, layered arrangements - make it sound as if the amped-up roar of a crowd lay somewhere beneath the notes. And elusive as Mr. Bowie may be, it conveys the sense of an urgently felt personal communication.

Figuratively as well as literally speaking, Mr. Bowie has aged gracefully. He has remained engaged with new ideas, with different forms and genres of music, with variations on what it means to be an outsider and with the many costumes identity can wear, and they still inform his music. On "Reality," however, he addresses the near impossibility of aging gracefully when the end point is in sight. At 25, on "Changes," he sang, "So I turned myself to face me/ But I never caught a glimpse/ Of how others must see the faker." At 56, he has turned around again. He is no longer looking to outer space, or to the extravagant artifice of persona. Very much rooted in the chaotic rubble of life on earth, he is looking at himself. "I've been right and I've been wrong/ Now I'm back where I started from/ I never looked over/ Reality's shoulder," he sings on the title track. On "New Killer Star," he sings, "All my life in a comic/ Like the way they did the bible/ With the bubbles and action/ The little details in color... Like seeing Jesus on 'Dateline'/ Let's face the music and dance."

Where the tragic youth of "Changes" sounds as if he's wondering where he's going, the tragic adult of "Reality" sounds as if he's taken the trip and returned none the wiser for it. This was also true on Mr. Bowie's last album, "Heathen." "Heathen" was not a concept album, but the blind heathen was one of Mr. Bowie's (less elaborate) theatrical constructs. On the album's cover, the pupils of Mr. Bowie's eyes were whited out, and in performances that promoted the record, he left the stage with his head down and his hand on the shoulder of his longtime bassist, Gayle Anne Dorsey. Lyrically, both records are to a greater or lesser degree about what the singer sees. Although on "Reality," the singer's sight has improved somewhat - on the cover, an anime-style portrait, his eyes are huge - the full picture still evades him. "I look for sense but I get next to nothing/ Hey, boy, welcome to reality," he sings on the title track. "Don't let me know we're invisible," he sings on the record's closer, "Bring Me the Disco King."

The burst of bitter energy that results from this struggle is exhilarating rather than depressing. It is also moving. In a particularly gracious nod to the deceased, the record's second cover song is "Try Some, Buy Some," by George Harrison. Mr. Bowie says he came to it via the Ronnie Spector cover version. But for the listener who recognizes the writing credit, the song, a poignant waltz, evokes the simplicity and finality of grief. It also serves as a reminder that, unlike Mr. Harrison, Mr. Bowie has always been touch and go about almighty forces - like seeing Jesus on "Dateline" - and never more so than on "Reality."

Listeners found God in Harrison's work because he put it there. Listeners who find God in Mr. Bowie's, and they are legion, find it precisely because he never quite does. Whether in the material world or the cosmos, the countdown is under way, but who or what is doing the counting is far from certain. After singing, on "Bring Me the Disco King," "Stab me in the dark, let me disappear," Mr. Bowie returns to the lines "I don't know about you, I don't know about you," throughout the song's second half.

Mr. Bowie is not alone among his peers in making work that continues, through the decades, to challenge both himself and his audience. Nor is he alone in taking an idiom originally designed (by Mr. Bowie himself, among others) to express the emotions and interests of coming of age and repurposing it to accommodate having gotten there. His former collaborators Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, as well as Neil Young, whose "I've Been Waiting for You" Mr. Bowie covered on "Heathen," are just a few examples of rock icons who do the same. But with "Reality," he has achieved a rare and valuable thing: a great rock record for tragic adults as well as for tragic youth.