Reality was the last David Bowie album for a long time. It comes off as a pretty inconsequential album, and it would have been an anticlimactic finale to such a prolific artist had Bowie never come back the next day (haha sorry). I love how he delights in irreverence while at the same time holding to the ideals of an old man’s record, even parodying himself, titling the album Reality but featuring his anime avatar on the cover. It’s ridiculous and corny, but I kind of like it because of that. It’s also a super interesting record, because I am convinced that he was – whether purposeful or accidental – borrowing more from Never Let Me Down than any other album. I mentioned way back when I was talking about Tin Machine, that I felt like these albums were surprisingly influential in the long wrong despite being afterthoughts for a lot of people. I didn’t catch it at all when I was listening to Never Let Me Down, but since I’ve been listening to Reality this week, I can’t shake this feeling. I think that Bowie was trying to correct that album with Reality, or rather to re-do it in a way. And if that was his intention, he absolutely succeeded. I defended it to some extent, saying that it wasn’t perfect but it had potential had it been done properly, and I think that Reality brings a lot of truth to that.
From the get-go, New Killer Star actually borrows guitar parts from ’87 and Cry. Listen to half of ’87 and then switch to New Killer Star, and you’ll hear exactly what I mean. In any case, I love how he summons the album from those quirky guitar notes, and this song is just killer (sorry) as it’s bass and guitar riff grind into you. The bass is especially great as it does a little walk-up right before the chorus (it sounds straight out of John, I’m Only Dancing even). Bowie sounds incredible here, too, proving that age would never beat him down. I love how he starts the song emotionlessly, but suddenly he’s singing like a he’s suddenly growing younger during the pre-chorus, pulling off a wonderfully Ziggy-like “I’m thinking now”. I love his constant fascination with stars, and here it sounds more like he’s singing “nuclear star”. Like Never Let Me Down, a couple of the songs on this album are political, and the title could be a reference to that.
I really liked Cactus on Heathen. It was kooky and a lighthearted little cover on a mostly serious album, and I think that Pablo Picasso serves a really similar function. It might even be better, because the spanish guitar is so cool, and I love how Bowie is singing this, like, punk song about how Pablo Picasso hooked up with a lot of women but nobody called him an asshole. I’ve always wondered why Bowie loved doing covers when he had so many great b-sides and stand-a-lone songs, and I think that as creative as he was, he was a lover of music. He posted that list of his favorite records, made an entire cover album, and is constantly mimicking popular music trends. In a lot of cases, Bowie doesn’t make the cover his own, but I think he got a lot better at it in the second half of his career, and Pablo Picasso is a good example of that. Try Some Buy Some, on the other hand is not. I don’t think it quite goes down with the likes of the covers on Tonight, and I get what he was trying to do with the song. It’s also an example of how he still holds to the ideals of what an album by an old musician should be. It should be full of regret, nostalgia, emotions linked to the past, and Try Some Buy Some is exactly that. He had covered the Beatles before, worked with John Lennon, and George Harrison had died just a year or two before he made Reality, and to be honest, I think that Bowie has more in common with Harrison than any of the other Beatles for his genre-bending and mystic aura. That said, he doesn’t do that much with this cover, and it’s the most skippable song on the album.
If he sounded old on Try Some Buy Some, he sounded ancient and tired on The Loneliest Guy. It’s a pretty song, and it sounds so deep. What I mean is, it sounds like everything is really far. Just listen to that guitar way back there, drifting out into the black while Bowie sounds like he’s literally turning to dust before our very ears. On Days he also sounds his age, playing the kind of song that old people do, and it comes off as kind of a retread, but it’s so pretty and it’s a retread that I really enjoy. I love the sound of the keyboards, bouncy and in total contrast with the tone of the song. It’s a minor song, but it’s lovely. It feels a similar to the title track of Never Let Me Down, though a bit more sophisticated.
I first got into Reality through satellite radio when I was in high school. That’s where I first heard Aladdin Sane’s title track and was enamored with Mike Garson’s wild solo. I later heard Fall Dog Bombs the Moon on the same station and immediately got Reality. It sounded great, a Bowie that had never heard or imagined before. He doesn’t sound like the messiah coming down from the stars, he sounds like an un-phased commentator on the situation. He’s as emotionless on this song as he was when he began the album, nonchalantly singing about doom and gloom. I love the muted crunchiness of the guitars, and I’ve always liked the imagery of the chorus.
Bring Me the Disco King is the big song on this album, but I want to make a case for She’ll Drive the Big Car. It’s another one that strongly reminds me of a correction of what he wanted to do on Never Let Me Down, partly because of the harmonica, but also because of the storytelling. It has a cool, groovy quality to it, with Bowie singing about a woman hating her middle aged married life, considering something deadly. I love the vocal effects on Bowie’s voice during the verses and the imagery is wonderful, lines like “love lies like a dead cloud” is spooky but enthralling, and the descending (minor chord?) chords are wonderful. It’s just an absolutely chilling song, and the groove of the song is like being in a car on a gray day, contemplating murder with your family in the car. “Just a little bit faster now” is straight-up menacing. The Young Americans shout-out is subtle but shoots lightning up my body with giddiness, the little “sad, sad soul” and the handclaps. Gosh! It’s not necessarily my favorite (that’s still reserved for Disco King), but it’s certainly the most interesting song on the album, sonically and structurally.
But who am I kidding, Bring Me the Disco King is one of his masterpieces. I would kill to hear how it transformed during the 10 years between when he first wrote it to Reality. Though it doesn’t matter, because this final version is wonderfully ghostly, and it plays out like a dirge. Mike Garson reins in his wilder instincts, but he still sounds amazing playing so controlled with those sauntering, jazzy drums pushing him along. For a while, I thought this was Bowie’s final gift, and what a career closer it was until the next day (haha sorry again). I said that Bowie was obsessed with death on Heathen, and here he alludes to it in a much different way. Here, he’s the devil calling back his son, and I’m heartbroken more than ever now. In a way, this is still part of his last goodbye. “You promised me the ending would be clear,” he sings, recalling “five years is all we’ve got” so long ago. “Close me in the dark, let me disappear,” takes on a whole new meaning in retrospect after having seen his video for Lazarus. “Soon there’ll be nothing left of me, nothing left to release.”
Then he’s gone, the disco king gone invisible. For ten years at least.