The Oregonian - 19th September 2003

A 'Reality' without absolutes

By Marty Hughley

David Bowie's new album, "Reality," has one of those titles that ride a fine line between the grandiose and the prosaic. "I was dwelling on the idea of there not being any ultimate reality," Bowie told writer David Wild in an interview for the album's press notes. "This reality that we live through, its basis is more an all-pervasive influence of contingency rather than a defined structure of absolutes."


Life is full of contingency, sure. But that just means it's hard to describe or predict reality, not that there isn't any such thing.

Silly sophistry aside, though, the reality of "Reality" is that it's the best Bowie album in years, at the least since 1995's underrated "Outside." And unlike the self-consciously avant-garde and futuristic "Outside," the new one is instantly listener-friendly, bristling with the kind of sonic experimentation we expect from Bowie but also delivering melodic hooks and rhythmic flair by the truckload.

Compared with its most recent predecessors, last year's dour "Heathen" and 1999's wan, unfocused 'hours...', "Reality" is a heartening return. Bowie once again sounds energetic and assured, looking outward and ready to take on the chaos of the world, rather than mulling over isolation and mortality.

For the most part, his lyrics are as oblique and abstract as ever, but he appears to be dealing in his own way with contemporary politics and its fallout. A lament about the callous power of the military-industrial complex comes through in the downcast "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" ("When I talk in the night/there's oil on my hands/What a dog"). One might hear allusions to the World Trade Center disaster or to a more generalized mood of anxiety in the tense, big-beat rocker "Looking for Water" ("But I lost God in a New York minute") and the dance-floor groover "New Killer Star" ("See a great white scar/over Battery Park"). But as usual, Bowie points in multiple directions at once, always preferring contingency to absolutes in his own manner of expression.

Bowie told Wild that the album wasn't meant to have any unifying concept, as his records often do, but simply was a collection of songs written, for the most part, early this year. But the influence of his setting - New York City - comes through in several geographical references, and in the high-energy urban feel of the record. "There's a twang when the foot hits the ground," Bowie said of the city, in a Filter magazine interview. "I knew what it sounded like. And that's what I wanted to get onto the vinyl."

Chances are some of the credit for capturing that big-city sound goes to co-producer Tony Visconti, who has manned the board for most of Bowie's greatest work. Visconti played bass on much of the record, and other veteran Bowie sidemen such as guitarist Earl Slick, drummer Sterling Campbell and pianist Mike Garson (who long ago contributed that stunning, crazed-cabaret solo on "Aladdin Sane") congeal into a band that sounds equally confident expressing the melancholy ambience of "The Loneliest Guy in the World," the "sad, sad soul" of "She'll Drive the Big Car" or the apocalyptic rush of "Looking for Water."

It helps that this band gets to work with Bowie's most vital batch of songs in some time, but two of the album's brightest moments come in well-chosen covers. The Jonathan Richman classic "Pablo Picasso" gets boldly reimagined, opening here with flamenco guitars edited to sound like something out of a watery dream, then breaking into a burly futurism full of swooping synthesizers and wailing guitars. And the version of "Try Some, Buy Some," a George Harrison nugget about moving beyond superficial temptations into pure love, though apparently based on an earlier cover by Ronnie Spector, wonderfully captures Harrison's sweetness and grace.

In short, reality may or may not be absolute. But "Reality" is an absolute pleasure.