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Hope I Grow Up Before I Die Old

 

David Bowie: Reality

Sony, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: September 20, 2003

By Laurence Station

David Bowie just wasn't meant to be a follower. From his rise to the stratospheric heights of rock superstardom in the 1970s through his artistically fallow but commercially successful early '80s run, Bowie nimbly skirted the obvious trends. In the mid-'70s, when the punk movement was taking hold, Bowie was perfecting his detached, blue-eyed soul "Thin White Duke" persona. While New Wave (punk's more pop-oriented offshoot) was finding mainstream acceptance on the charts and in the dance clubs at the beginning of the '80s, Bowie released Scary Monsters, one of the tougher rockers of his career. By 1983's hugely popular Let's Dance, Bowie found himself competing with the New Romantic subgenre of New Wave (which, ironically, he helped inspired). And then a decade-long creative decline set in. 1984's Tonight was little more than a fast grab cash-in on the heightened awareness achieved via Let's Dance, and 1987's Never Let Me Down was a little too obvious in its anti-commercial rejection of past successes. It was as if Bowie had to tear himself down to zero and start all over again.

In the '90s, Bowie attempted to connect with the Gen-X/alterna-everything sound of the moment, first with 1995's Outside, an overproduced stab at Trent Reznor-style industrial pop, and then with 1997's laudable but trying-too-hard techno excursion, Earthling. The problem lay with Bowie attempting to do something he's simply never been good at: Following popular trends. On 1999's Hours, Bowie seemed to realize this; it's the first sign of a more mature artist accepting the fact that, despite what the Rolling Stones would have people believe, rock 'n' roll is and shall forever remain the domain of the young. Realizing he'll never again come close to hitting the critical and commercial heights of his astonishing 1970s output, Bowie finally appeared at peace with that knowledge.

Which leads us to last year's Heathen, the best Bowie album since Scary Monsters and one that, coincidentally enough, Bowie produced with his Monsters collaborator, Tony Visconti. Heathen exhibits a grim acceptance on Bowie's part that, as he admits on the title track, "All things must pass", but not before he pays tribute to fellow artists (Neil Young and the Pixies, in particular) who've touched and inspired him.

Where Heathen found Bowie assessing his accomplishments, his influence and his place in the rock 'n' roll hierarchy, Reality offers a darker take on Heathen's melancholic but clear-eyed examination of one's past. Once again working with Visconti, Bowie seems determined to punch things up a little more with this effort. The "ready, set, go" guitar-driven "New Killer Star" sets the tone early, as does a sprightly, fun cover of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso," with wry lines like "Well he was only 5'3" / But girls could not resist his stare".

Like Heathen, Reality contains its fair share of quieter, more introspective moments. "The Loneliest Guy," a mournful tale of regret and loss, is effectively sandwiched between the defiantly optimistic "Never Get Old" ("Looking at the future / Solid as a rock / Because of you") and the considerably more desperate "Looking for Water." "Days" finds Bowie admitting "All the days of my life / I owe you," as he seeks forgiveness (from whom is never made clear) for selfishly taking throughout his career and offering little in return. It's the sound of an older man putting his affairs in order, mending bridges, and, significantly, restoring order to his life.

The balance between impassioned rockers and haunted ruminations is Reality's true accomplishment. It may not cut as deeply as the more reserved Heathen, but it's certainly a lot more fun. Save, that is, for Bowie's other cover, a glossy run through of George Harrison's "Try Some, Buy Some" that neither rocks nor asks relevant questions, throwing off the album's heretofore expertly sequenced flow. In the final analysis, Reality proves a worthwhile addition to the Bowie catalogue, an album whose creator is neither starting trends nor following them, but rather comfortable in his own, near six-decade-old skin. And while it might not push the experimental envelope as forcefully as some critics or fans would like, it nonetheless sounds as vital and vibrant as any pop-rock record released this year. And after 40 years and 26 albums, the man's earned a little downtime for reflection.

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