Released back in 2003, Reality was David Bowie‘s 23rd album and it was greeted with average interest, its release feeling more underground and indie than most of the artist’s other albums.
Had people known this would be Bowie’s last album before a 10 year gap, would they have appreciated it more? Or was this really a mild effort?
Reality certainly doesn’t open half-assed with a very cool opening track, and first single, as “New Killer Star” brings with it a simple half-grungy half-country riff and moody vocals (and backing vocals) to create a fun track which builds expertly and goes creative places. There’s also an underlying sinister feel about this one you might not catch upon a first listen. The second track, “Pablo Picasso” is also the second single to be released from Reality and it’s another great tune though it’s a cover from Jonathan Richman (The Modern Lovers). It’s got a slightly mad, circusey synth hook, great lyrics and a very energetic Bowie going for it.
Though you might remember “Never Get Old” from the amusing Vittel ad David Bowie took part in to promote the album (“New Killer Star” later replaced the song) back in the day, it’s also actually a decent track on its own with a funky hook and a very cool chorus. The next track is altogether very different: somber, desperate, heartbreaking. “The Loneliest Guy” is an overlooked gem from this album which won’t exactly please those looking to party but play that song on a grey day and you’ll simply get it. A beautifully dark ode to melancholy.
Things pick up quickly as “Looking For Water” offers confident vocals, a thumping beat and a fantastic bass line all the way through. It’s an energetic, straight-forward yet irresistible track and one of the most fun on the album. Song number 6 is “She’ll Drive The Big Car”, which opens with a short harmonica solo before leading us to some poetic verses that make you wonder where the song will go from there but, luckily, we are then given a really effective chorus which is moodily underlined by the backing vocals. The song never takes off too much but it’s worth sticking around for that chorus.
My personal favourite track on the album is “Days”, a ballad and probably the softest song on Reality. It’s a heartfelt, beautiful little tune with a pretty melody which only gets prettier as it goes on. As soon as the beat finally kicks in, you know you’re in for something special as Bowie’s lyrics and vocals coupled with everything else about this song makes it one bittersweet treat: all of it just works. “Fall Dogs Bomb The Moon” is next and, while its lyrics make for a solid critique on corporate/military power, the subject matter could have been taken on with more gusto. As it stands, it works thanks to a catchy chorus but lacks a certain energy and anger.
The next track, “Try Some, Buy Some”, was written by George Harrison and was originally sung by Ronnie Spector but it somehow makes a lot of sense as a David Bowie track, the artist making the song his own and clearly loving singing it. It’s got that early 70’s feel but also a welcome modern touch which helps keep it fresh. The title track “Reality” then steps up and brings a faster-pace with it as well as some defiant laughing which punctuates the irony expressed through the lyrics playfully. It’s not the most memorable song on the album but it’s got enough attitude and great vocal work to keep anyone entertained.
“Bring Me The Disco King” is the final song on the album and, against all odds, it’s certainly not a disco song. In fact, this is an old track Bowie reworked several times before finally keeping things raw and going for a dark, jazzy, piano-led vibe. It’s a bittersweet, beautiful tune which grows slowly and, if you go for the Danny Lohner (Nine Inch Nails) mix, you’ll hear a rockier version which works even better somehow, though in a different way. It doesn’t exactly end the album with a bang, instead quietly turning off the lights and leaving you in a reflective mood.
What to make of Reality, then?
As we all know, bad David Bowie albums are hard to find and this one is no bad album at all. Calling it “mild” is stupidly harsh though one could see how a critic expecting something heavier would be disappointed. Reality goes for gritty yet polished simplicity, David Bowie delivering one great, unpretentious, honest track after the other with the help of a very versatile band which helps make each song as good as it can possibly be. There are stand out tracks but also a couple of more forgettable ones but even those are competently put together and worth a listen.
All in all, maybe not David Bowie’s very best but it’s an album I never tire of listening to and it gets a high 3 Ziggies out of 5 from us.
You’ll probably find yourself revisiting that one every so often.