The album’s themes

I still love this town. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. We’ve been here now, my wife and I, for 10 years. I realized the other day that I’ve lived in New York longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. It’s amazing: I am a New Yorker. It’s strange; I never thought I would be.
David Bowie, 2003

Although Bowie was careful to stress that Reality was not a concept album, some clear themes were discernable.

The first was his status as a new parent. Bowie and Iman’s daughter Lexi – Alexandria Zahra Jones – was born on 15 August 2000, and her infancy brought into focus some key questions which had preoccupied Bowie for many years: the purpose of life, social unrest, personal doubts, and the existence or otherwise of a god figure.

The album has no big point. It is an impression of quite fast snapshots. I’m still just feeling my way through. The problem I’m having is actually trying to find those flecks of light that I can truly believe in, and not just throw them in for the sake of trying to make my work a bit lighter. You know, in a few years my daughter is going to be asking, ‘Is there a God, Dad?’ Am I going to be able to resolve that issue for myself before then? I don’t think so. Do I tell her about what obstacles I am confronting and how I stumble around in the dark about it? Do I present her with this kind of obstacle course right from the beginning? It’s really hard to be able to tell the truth to your child when you’re not absolutely sure what the truth is yourself.
David Bowie
Interview magazine, October 2003

Personal disquiet dominates the lyrics of several songs, most notably ‘Never Get Old’, ‘The Loneliest Guy’, and ‘Days’. But self-doubt casts a shadow over several others, from the “idiot questions” in ‘New Killer Star’, to the doomed love affair and thwarted dreams of ‘She’ll Drive The Big Car’, and the troubled protagonist in ‘Looking For Water’.

The individual’s place in society also emerged as a lyrical theme. The early 21st century saw the rapid rise of reality TV shows, which Bowie appeared to have observed with a mix of abhorrence and compulsion.

The word [reality] has got such a lot of spin attached to it these days. It’s become very hard to say Reality without putting virtual in front of it, or TV after it. So it’s been debased but there again, what has been debased? The actuality of reality is so much in flux now. It’s different realities for different people.

I know that a person in a Third World country isn’t going to give a fuck whether we believe there are or there aren’t any absolutes. Because there are absolutes for them, indelibly so, poverty and so on, absolutes of survival from day to day. So the definition of the word is the luxury of an elite few in the West.

David Bowie
The Word, October 2003

In his online journal entry, before the title of Reality had been announced, Bowie wrote about how reality TV appeared to be rising in a time of social unrest, and how it gave the illusion of control to viewers.

I cannot believe the amount of peeps who’ve gone down with ‘flu and/or pneumonia this season. I think anxiety has lowered immune systems terribly. People and the power, or the lack of it.

It also gives a logical reason for the popularity of all these Reality shows. The act of voting gives folks the idea that they have a say over something, if not the world picture, then at least which singer should be a star or something. Grim. But I bet these shows take a huge tumble when/if events become more tranquil.

David Bowie, 3 April 2003

Bowie had mostly finished recording his previous album, Heathen, prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, the despondent air and prophetic tone of several of the songs gave the impression that it was inspired by the events.

I’d just written some songs, and I amalgamated them with a couple of covers I’d wanted to do. I didn’t approach this with any kind of through line involved. It wasn’t a conceptualized piece at all.

Heathen was very different. It was written as a deeply questioning album. Of course, it had one foot astride that awful event in September. So that was quite a traumatic album to finish. This one hints at that, but it’s not really trying to resolve any trauma.

David Bowie, 2003

Reality was written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and recorded in Manhattan. The city’s scarred skyline and defiant spirit was palpable in the words and the urgency of the music.

The most obvious one would be before and after 9/11. Heathen was done just before it. Reality was the effects of living in New York after it.

Ironically, the sad and more poignant and, in a way, more introspective piece was Heathen, which was before the event. I think Reality is more an aggressively positive thing.

David Bowie, 2004
Tampa Bay Times

Bowie had never before released an album peppered with lyrics about a specific place. Reality sets the stave in the opening lines of ‘New Killer Star’: “See the great white scar over Battery Park/Then a flare glides over, but I won’t look at that scar”.

I didn’t want to get crippled by all the events of this last couple of years. It’s like when you have a pain in your back: The way to make sure it doesn’t become rigid is to keep trying to work it out, to keep trying to loosen it up. I didn’t want what was going on in the world to overtake me and carry me to a place where I just couldn’t work anymore. I’ve seen that happen before to people around me. I felt like I was becoming a passive spectator of everything that was happening, so there was an urgency to my need to pin down this particular moment in time. This album, Reality, is not “Bowie’s New York album,” but there is a very strong sense of my neighborhood in downtown New York; I was there while I was writing it, so there is an energy reflected in the songs that I couldn’t have captured in the mountains.

This album is a counterpoint to the idea of a spiritual search. It started off as a random collection of songs – just whatever I was writing at the moment – that express how I feel right now, in this time. But afterwards, reflecting on the work itself, there are recurrent themes – the sense of anxiety about the times that we’re living through and a strong sense of place. It was unwitting, though, because I wasn’t planning on doing that.

David Bowie
Interview magazine, October 2003

Elsewhere there are references to New York itself, Riverside Drive, the Lower East Side intersection of “Ludlow and Grand, south along the Hudson”, as well as sidewalks, city spires, and a multitude of other urban imagery. The intersection of the personal and public can be found in ‘Looking For Water’: “But I lost God in a New York minute/Don’t know about you but my heart’s not in it.”

Despite this, Bowie was keen to downplay the notion of Reality as his hymn to the city. In the October 2003 issue of The Word magazine, he told interview Paul Du Noyer: “New York informs it, but it’s not the content of the album. It’s a lot more about New York than I expected it to be, but I would not want it to be considered my New York album. It’s more about the times it was made in.”

As I knew that we were going to continue touring this year, I was looking for something that had a slightly more urgent kind of sound than Heathen, but I think the mainstay of the album is that I was writing it and recording here in downtown New York. It’s very much inspired by where I live and how I live and the day-to-day life down here. There is a sense of urgency to this town. The engine of it is therefore a lot more street-beat than, say, Heathen, which by virtue of the fact that it was written in the mountains, had a much deeper, more majestic, tranquil kind of quality to it.

The albums that I’ve written out of character with the place where I’m living have often been failures. They don’t work so well, it’s very odd. Still, [Reality] is not my New York album. I didn’t want it to be saying ‘This is what New York’s like right now.’ There really was no through line, it is just a collection of songs. Because of the way that Tony and I work together, there’s some kind of continuity throughout, but that’s more in the style of production. There was very little struggle to find what would be right for the album. In all, I think we only left off two or three songs.

David Bowie
Sound On Sound, October 2003
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