Original press release
Reality. What an elusive and defiled concept.
The stark reality about REALITY – David Bowie’s stunning and vital new album – is that there really isn’t any concept. And according to REALITY’s legendary creator, there ultimately may not be any reality either.
With REALITY, Bowie has taken a low concept to new heights. The vivid, wildly impressive result – released September 16, 2003 on ISO/Columbia – is one of the most powerful sets of songs in Bowie’s illustrious body of work. Coming from the creative pioneer who brought rock music a newfound narrative drama and depth with 1972’s classic The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the premise for REALITY – Bowie’s 26th album – couldn’t have been more straightforward.
“I said to myself that I would just do a collection of songs that I was writing at the time,” Bowie recalls. “A collection of songs with no through line, no undercurrent of any kind of narrative, no concept of tying it all together.” The initial mission for REALITY was that simple – write a batch of new songs, and may the best song win. “Each song was autonomous in my head,” says Bowie. “Yet it did seem for some reason there was still a unity in there somehow. The album pulls together as a complete piece, even though the styles are quite diverse.”
In this regard, the potent, eclectic group of songs Bowie delivers on REALITY can be heard as being in the distinguished tradition of some past Bowie classics. Imagine 1971’s Hunky Dory reflecting on these significantly less hunky dory times, or 1980’s Scary Monsters with scarier monsters and more super creeps. Still, even if there are echoes of Bowie’s glorious past here and there, REALITY is – in its timely subject matter and its tremendous scope – ultimately very much an album in the present tense.
Starting in October 2003, Bowie will return to the road, bringing “A REALITY TOUR” to more than a million people in 17 countries over seven months. By using the word “reality” for both his new album and tour, Bowie isn’t paying even mock tribute to recent lowbrow television trends. Bowie was inspired by ideas significantly bigger than the plot twists on “Joe Millionaire.”
“I wasn’t even trying to reclaim the word `reality’ really,” Bowie explains. “I just threw it in there, purposely juxtaposing the old definition of the word with the new tangle that it’s become. Truthfully, I was dwelling on the idea of there not being any ultimate reality. For those who are aware of the shape-shifting going on in the world today, the fact is there really are no absolutes anymore. This reality that we live through, its basis is more an all-pervasive influence of contingency rather than a defined structure of absolutes.”
Yet for all this post-modern ambiguity, it’s still hard not to recognize REALITY’s bold sound and vision for what it really is. Smart, sharp and intense, REALITY offers a gritty soundscape that’s everything we’ve come to expect from this man who England’s famed music publication NME voted in 1999 the most influential artist of all time. From the time “Space Oddity” first introduced Bowie to American audiences through recent triumphs like 1995’s Outside and 2002’s million-selling, critically acclaimed Heathen, which had 15 top 15 chart debuts worldwide including the U.S., Bowie has set the standard for ongoing adventurousness and artistry in popular music.
At a stage of his life when so many of his famed colleagues and fellow travelers have turned toward mere nostalgia, Bowie remains steadfastly focused on the here and now. Though the narrator of REALITY’s infectious track “Never Get Old” is no doubt misguided in his pledge to bypass the aging process entirely, Bowie does seem to have tapped into some fountain of creative youth, sounding as engaged and inspire here as ever.
Too often Bowie has been described a chameleon. In truth, the music reflects the man, whatever the changes. Just as Bowie’s late Seventies albums Low and Heroes – recorded in Berlin during a period of great personal transformation – conveyed the sonic texture of that place, so too does REALITY capture the aggressive edge and street wisdom of Bowie’s most recent home, New York City.
REALITY’s acclaimed, moody predecessor, 2002’s Heathen, was recorded in the relative peace of upstate New York. REALITY was recorded in lower Manhattan. Laced with references to Battery Park, Riverside and the Hudson, REALITY offers the pretty/ugly feel of cracked Big Apple pavement.
“I struggled hard to not make it try to be about New York,” says Bowie, who made a huge impact in his adopted hometown by opening “The Concert For New York” in 2001. “But I did try to make it a kind of a snapshot of me living in New York, and my reactions to being here.”
Shortly before recording REALITY, Bowie completed the “New York City Marathon Tour,” which found the global rock great performing on five nights in five different small venues in each of New York’s five boroughs. That short but sweet experience helped set the stage for REALITY’s explosive, road-ready sound. “We got off so much on being kind of a club band for five days in the bars,” says Bowie. “ It just brought it home to me that that’s the kind of album I should make. It really should reflect where I am now and how I live, the people I know and make music with.”
REALITY follows rather fast upon Heathen, suggesting that the still Thin White Duke is on another big creative roll. Like Heathen, REALITY finds Bowie once again working closely with producer Tony Visconti, a key collaborator going back to the days of The Man Who Sold The World, and albums like Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters. “I think it’s just that we were so delighted with how aesthetically successful the Heathen album was for us,” says Bowie. “That gave us such encouragement for just letting fly on this one. The chemistry is very good between the two of us.”
That chemistry extended to the members of Bowie’s band – vocalist/bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, pianist Mike Garson, drummer Sterling Campbell, guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard, and vocalist Catherine Russell. Visconti himself played bass (on several tracks), while Bowie contributed keyboards, guitar and saxophone. “I did decide before anything else this album would really represent the stage band,” says Bowie.
REALITY feels both fleshed out and heartfelt. “I built a wall of sound to separate us,” Bowie sings on REALITY’s wonderfully aggressive, even pissed-off title track. Yet the wall of sound Bowie and Visconti have constructed here does exactly the opposite – just check out Bowie’s wonderfully beefed-up, brilliant cover of “Pablo Picasso,” a minimalist, Seventies proto-punk rock classic by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – another song that nicely references New York.
REALITY finds Bowie looking out at the world around whereas the more introspective Heathen seemed to cast its glance almost entirely within. Songs like the opening gem “New Killer Star” and “Looking For Water” appear to comment on recent world events in a poetic, potent way. “I think that there’s more about the exterior on this one, and it communicates in a way. It has a social kind of mattress to it,” Bowie says. “You know, it just feels as though these are songs written for people.”
Of “New Killer Star,” Bowie says, “I’m not a political commentator, but I think there are times when I’m stretched to at least implicate what’s happening politically in the songs that I’m writing. And there was some nod, in a very abstract way, toward the wrongs that are being made at the moment with the Middle Eastern situation. I think that song is a pretty good manifesto for the whole record.” The song is altogether startling, a little like seeing “Jesus on Dateline” to borrow a memorable line from the song.
In the world of REALITY, there is a good deal of anger, much of it political in nature. For example, the mournful “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon” is Bowie’s rather artful comment on our military industrial complex. Still there is also much wit and joy here. “There is a lot of humor on the album actually,” Bowie admits. Add up the social commentary with more personal songs like the reflective “Days,” and the result is a geo-political, rock & roll gas. Like his narrator of “New Killer Star,” Bowie seems to be both asking us to face the music and declaring let’s dance.
“It behooves me to find positivism in the way that I’m living more than anything else,” Bowie says of the album’s energy. “I think unlike in Berlin, where I was really dealing with a lot of negativity that I had to lose, these days it’s almost the other side of the same coin. I am actually searching for the optimistic in my life. And that’s generated by being a father again. I have to say that if I didn’t have my little 3-year-old running around, I don’t think I would be writing quite this way. It would be a lot more destructive possibly, possibly. But seeing in her eyes all the hope and joy and optimism of the future, I have to reflect that somewhat in what I’m doing.”
REALITY offers a wide range of reflections. In addition to covering “Pablo Picasso,” Bowie has wonderfully recorded “Try Some, Buy Some,” a song by the late, great George Harrison that was recorded in the early Seventies for Apple Records by former girl group great Ronnie Spector. In fact, that single’s original flip side “Tandoori Chicken” is said to be something of an obscure Beatles reunion track.
“It never really occurred to me that I was actually covering a George Harrison song,” explains Bowie, who famously collaborated with John Lennon on “Fame” in 1975. “I was kind of doing an homage to Ronnie because I’ve adored her for years. I think it’s really rather fitting and quite lovely that in fact, it is an unwitting tribute to George. Over the years I’ve had many songs that I put onto a list because one day I’ll do a Pin Ups 2 album of covers. These were just two on it, and I kind of plucked them off for this album because I’m enjoying the part of just being the fan. It’s a lovely thing to do.”
There are many lovely things about REALITY. There’s “Bring Me The Disco King” – a long, after-hours, stripped-down jazzy number which prominently features Bowie with one time Spider Mike Garson on piano. Bowie’s actually had this song for more than a decade. “I tried it two or three times before, but it just never worked because I made it disco – a virtual audio glitter ball,” he explains. “Then I found treating it minimally actually did far more for the lyric and for the sense of the song. And the song just came into its own.”
Many of REALITY’s songs will come even further into their own during “A REALITY TOUR,” where Bowie will mix material from the new album and Heathen with a cherrypicked selection of earlier gems. Bowie intends the show to feature some of his favorite avant garde video, but little of the excessive stagecraft of 1987’s Glass Spider tour. “I think I will be bringing to the party things that signify that this is just me on stage,” says Bowie. “This is just a bloke singing and interpreting his own songs. It’s not a huge theater piece.”
This man who once bravely retired his past hits has in recent years grown more comfortable with his own musical shadow. “At the end of the ‘80s when I was going through the Tin Machine period and restructuring things for myself, I felt very insecure about what I was as a writer,” Bowie admits. “I didn’t want the weight of all the stuff that had previously been thought so great in my face while I was trying to rediscover who I was as a writer. And I guess modestly I’d have to say that I feel very confident in myself as a writer now. I like the stuff that I’ve been doing through the ‘90s and into this period now. I just feel it’s been getting pretty much stronger and stronger. I can look at those things from the past now with some sense of equality with the things that I’m writing now. They’re very different, but I think the weight is somewhat similar, which I think proved itself on the last tour, because the last time we went out, I think we did 50% new, 50% old. And they counter-balanced each other really, really well.”
As for the set list for “A REALITY TOUR,” Bowie says, “I’m doing ‘Loving The Alien,’ for instance, from Tonight and “Fantastic Voyage” from the Lodger album, trying to find things that actually support and compliment what I’m writing today. I’m also doing rock stuff like ‘Hang Onto Yourself’ from the Ziggy Stardust album which is going to be quite a surprise. I think we’ll be going out with fifty songs. I had hoped for sixty, but I think that’s really taking on a lot.”
There is one thing Bowie definitely won’t be taking on the road this time. “There’s no glass spider funnily enough,” Bowie says with a laugh. “Not even one.”