Monday, March 11, 2013

Bowie Week - Reality (2003)

I suppose only an artists of Bowie's stature and back catalogue could get away with calling an album "Reality". This was Bowie's 23rd studio album, released a year after Heathen which had been his biggest critical success for more than two decades, it was a return to what some critics referred to as 'a proper album'.

Heathen had seen Bowie and Tony Visconti reunited after a twenty two year gap and Visconti is the producer who seems to be able to bring out a 'warmer' sound in Bowie than other producers have manager over the last forty odd years. Personnel wise we have Sterling Campbell on drums, Earl Slick on guitar and Mike Garson on piano representing a trio of tried and test lieutenants, Visconti himself chips in on bass, guitar and vocals - just like the old days!

Right from the off this album feels like 'classic' Bowie, it has the feel of the best of his 1970's releases coupled with the deeper timbre of his voice that age has produced but with one big difference, Bowie has moved on, he is no longer an artist constantly in search of the next big thing, he seems to have settled in the now, not the past or pursuit of the future. Whilst the rest of us old gits can look back and wallow in nostalgia he's an artist who wants to push himself forwards. That said one of the criticisms of Bowie's output throughout the 1990's and up to and including Reality is that much of it is simply dull, whilst the counter argument runs that a bit like a musical Grand old Duke of York, when he is good he's good and when he's dull he's dull and when he's neither good nor dull he's not worth bothering with. I suppose that for somebody of my vintage he offers the combination of comfort in a musical collective memory whilst trying to satisfy that urge to move on.

There seems to be some self effacing work going on with the lyrics as well, Bowie is not ashamed to announce, in the chorus of the first track, "New Killer Star" that  Don't ever say I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready/I'll never say I'm better, I'm better, I'm better/Don't ever say I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready/ I'll never said I'm better, I'm better, I'm better, I'm better than you".

Bowie promised us that this album would 'rock' and it does, second track is "Pablo Picasso" written by Jonathan Richman (of Roadrunner fame) and released as track four on side one of the Modern Lovers debut album. This is one of Bowie's better (post Pin Ups covers).  "Never Get Old" is the third track and is a song about worrying what the future might hold, worries about not having enough money or drugs or not being able to get high or get loved, once again the 'band' shows how 'tight' they are.

The track that attracted the most attention on the albums release was "The Loneliest Guy", which, depending on which side of the fence you sat, was either deeply depressing and too much or one of his best songs to date. I am somewhere in the middle in that I don't think the sombre nature of Bowie's voice and Mike Garson's piano take it into maudlin territory but equally I don't think it is one of his best, although it is probably better than most other artists 'best'.  It's Bowie explaining that rather than circumstance giving the impression that he is lonely he is actually lucky, it's very similar to some of Lou Reeds more accessible output.

"Looking For Water" would have closed Side One in the days of vinyl, not just because we would have reached the time limit for vinyl but because it would have brought the side to an end with an uplifting track.

Track Six is "She'll Drive A Big Car", which sounds like Bowie doing Jon Bon Jovi trying to be Bruce Springsteen on a track 'the boss' would have filed under 'outakes' to be released only after my death. 

Listening to "Days" is like being transported to a warm summer day in the 1970's and finding yourself on a bench alongside Ray Davies who has just discovered a Francoise Hardy album and decided to channel the spirit of Leonard Cohen through his guitar. Where on earth did Bowie get the idea for this song from? Putting me in 'old git' mode this song could sit easily alongside anything on Pin Ups without sounding as though it was from the wrong era, which it clearly does here, but the sentimentality of the lyric is saved by some superb work from Campbell, Slick and Visconti. If Scott Walker hadn't stopped recording hummable songs a decade or so ago this is what he would have evolved into.

"Fall Dog Bombs The Moon," is about Iraq (no really), or at least it was inspired by Bowie reading about the U.S company Halliburton operation to clear-up Iraq after the mess we left it in.

"Try Some Buy Some" is a cover of a George Harrison song that probably didn't need/warrant covering in the first place as in Harrison's hands it was more of a personal rather than public statement. however Bowie is entitled to some leeway for what is a personal tribute to a great artist.

"Reality" is the albums title track and at number 10 on the CD it is the penultimate track of an album that probably successfully bridges the twenty year plus gap since "Scary Monsters" when his albums were their most accessible. It's a rocker and you can't help noticing that whilst the voice has sounded mature up to this point we are back in mid 70's with the sound on his one.

"Tragic youth was looking young and sexy
The tragic youth was wearing tattered black jeans
Bearing arms and flaunting all her mischief
The tragic youth was going down on me"

Ooer missus!

I once heard a DJ say that Bowie was one of the few musical artists who led where others followed, I never agreed with that. What I think, for all that it's worth, is that what Bowie has done over his long career is not exactly taken the path most traveled but expanded on existing ideas and taken them to the next level. He wasn't the first artist to cover the blues, the first artist to move into glam, the first artist to record using synths, the first artist to write a concept album or, in the case of most of his albums post 1980, to try combinations of new and old before apparently settling for the slipper and cardigan familiarity of AOR.

And just when you think he is settled into 'quite good' mode up pops the last track, and the latest before today's new release, "Bring Me The Disco King", a jazz inspired track that was written ten years earlier but shelved at the time. The weird thing about this track is that despite it sounding like an idea conceived by a computer that has been fed a list of musical styles of the past sixty years (including jazz, samba and tango), and it being totally out of sync with everything that has gone before it on this album,  it works beautifully and is a perfect close to the album.

Bowie has changed and yet in some ways remained the same over the last six decades of music, as has his musical parish. He has challenged us, as listeners, to buy into his differing styles and along the way, as on any journey there have been casualties. I suspect that for many of his 'Hunky Dory/Ziggy/Aladdin Sane' fans the Berlin 'trilogy' remains forever another country, whilst those who bought 'Let's Dance' recoiled when presented with the Tin Machine albums or 'Outside'.

There are many artists, I'm looking at you Bruce Springsteen, who have made a long career out of recording the same album many times over under different titles and there are those, Paul McCartney, who seem incapable of living up to the high expectations that they and the public seem to have for them. For my money Bowie is possibly the only artist other than Bob Dylan who is prepared to go that bit further, to try something different even if it is a critical and commercial flop, perhaps that is why Dyland and Bowie are quite probably the only artists from the 1970's still recording today who are giving such leeway by both public and critics alike.


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