Virgin Megastores - 18th August 2003

David Bowie's Reality Check

By Mark Wood

Virgin Megatores has had a sneak preview of the glam-rock star's forthcoming album, and we can tell you it sits among his best albums...

It's tough being a die-hard Bowie fan right now. Ever since his late-'90s critical rehabilitation culminating in last year's triumphant Heathen album, he's had the critics crawling over one another to say that they'd always thought that Bowie was the best, most influential and most forward thinking persons in the history of rock 'n' roll.

Many of us loyal folk couldn't help feeling a bit stung. Granted, the man made a couple of stale stadium rock albums in the 1980s but it would have been nice, if not justifiable, if the same folk who love him again now, had noticed that Bowie had never stopped being a vital, exciting and brilliant contributor to music.

To prove it just look at 1993's (recently reissued) Black Tie White Noise. It was a marvellous fusion of rock 'n' soul, a kind of Station To Station for the thirtysomethings. And there was the still overlooked, Buddha Of Suburbia soundtrack that was a masterpiece of wistfulness and tasteful nostalgia for the early-1970s. Outside wasn't just a bold and brave, disturbingly jagged, avant-garde attempt to do something different with the album format, but also a long-awaited project with that other post-glam genius, Brian Eno.

As for the much-maligned Earthling - had the Loaded laddish crowd been able to prise their ears away from their Oasis records, they'd have discovered an angular, thoroughly modern powerhouse of new wave and jungle, sort of as if the Lodger had somehow woken up and found himself running a sound system with Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy at the Notting Hill Carnival.

From the off it's apparent that the momentum garnered by the success of Heathen continues apace on Reality. Opening track and new single New Killer Star finds Bowie all revved up and ready on what's his best out-and-out rocker in years. In fact, imagine '84's Blue Jean single with the right kind of lyrics and without the over-egged production and you're almost there. Urgent, relentless and a great scene setter for what's a terrifically energetic album, New Killer Star certainly shows more chart potential than the whole of Heathen's delicate, half-shadowy tunes put together. On Never Get Old Bowie dusts off his trusty Cockney voice and puts it to great use over a cracking (the band really sound good on this album) track that twists about all over the place. You can hear this one ricocheting around stadiums this autumn but I mean that in a GOOD way.

You want a Jean Genie / Rebel Rebel glam rock stomper? Then Looking For Water will give it to you. Coming over like the sluttish half-sister of Primal Scream's Rocks it leads nicely into She'll Drive The Big Car, wherein, if things weren't already noisy enough, Bowie tries out an eerie siren vocal effect. Surpassing even these two humdingers in the noise department is Reality's penultimate title track, a relentless noise-fest that leaves one wondering whether THIS is what Bowie had in his mind when he embarked on the hit 'n' miss Tin Machine project.

While the vast majority of Reality is made up of rockers, it does have its quiet moments. The Loneliest Guy starts out sounding something like Kate Bush's Breathing before breaking into an adorably mournful ballad with a cracked After All-style vocal from the man and some gorgeous mellotron-style effects throughout. On the melodic, mid-tempo Days Visconti scores some neat strings onto a track that's a worthy heir to Drive-In Saturday in the swooning stakes while a contender for best track on what's a remarkably consistent album has to be Fall Dog Bombs The Moon. Full of wonder and magic it's classic Bowie, and if it ain't the next single from Reality I'm walking out for good.

Two carefully chosen cover versions also make an appearance on the album. Already covered by John Cale but given a complete Iggy-ish overhaul by Bowie and co. is the Jonathon Richman classic Pablo Picasso. The real shocker here though is the much talked about version of Ronnie Spector's Try Some Buy Some. If you were in any way expecting something along the lines of cutesy girl group stuff then prepare yourself for a shock. This little baby is a curiously dark and dense version that builds with almost unbearable tension into a huge climax a la All The Young Dudes.

Bowie's work has always lent itself to being grouped in trilogies (consider the Low to Lodger Berlin trilogy, the Let's Dance to never Let Me Down stadium rock trilogy etc), and Reality would seem to fit in as the last in a group of works that began back in 1999 with 'hours...'. While that was a great album it wasn't until the release of Heathen last year that it became apparent that the man had finally found himself a niche where he was both comfortable with his former glories and capable of taking his work into fascinating new areas. Reality is the best of the three and we can only guess where the man's headed next.