New Killer Star [4.40]
Pablo Picasso [4.05]
Never Get Old [4.25]
The Loneliest Guy [4.11]
Looking For Water [3.28]
She'll Drive The Big Car [4.35]
Fall Dog Bombs The Moon [4.04]
Try Some, Buy Some [4.24]
Bring Me The Disco King [7.50]
Queen Of All The Tarts (Overture) [2.53]
Rebel Rebel [3.09]
Bonus tracks on Tour Edition:
Waterloo Sunset [3.28]
ISO/Columbia COL 512555 9 - September 2003 (CD: Limited Edition Card Case with Bonus Disc)
ISO/Columbia COL 512555 2 - September 2003 (CD: Jewel Case)
ISO/Columbia COL 512555 3 - November 2003 (CD: Tour Edition with Bonus DVD)
ISO/Columbia CS 90752 6 - December 2003 (SACD)
ISO/Columbia CN 90743 - February 2004 (DualDisc CD/DVD-Audio Trial Edition)
ISO/Columbia COL 512555 7 - February 2005 (DualDisc CD/DVD Audio)
Music On Vinyl MOVLP 875 - March 2014 (LP)
David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Stylophone, Baritone Sax, Percussion, Synths, Backing Vocals
Sterling Campbell: Drums
Gerry Leonard: Guitar
Mark Plati: Bass, Guitar
Mike Garson: Piano
Gail Ann Dorsey: Backing Vocals
Catherine Russell: Backing Vocals
Matt Chamberlain: Drums on "Bring Me The Disco King" and "Fly"
Tony Visconti: Bass, Guitar, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
David Torn: Guitar
Carlos Alomar: Guitar on "Fly"
Mario J McNulty: Additional Percussion, Drums on "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon", Additional Engineering
Looking Glass Studios, New York/Allaire Studios, New York/The Hitching Post Studio, Bell Canyon
David Bowie, Tony Visconti
As the Heathen tour drew to a close in October 2002, Bowie was already eager to return to the studio. He would later recall that he began writing new songs "immediately after leaving the road after doing the Five Boroughs tour...I was back at home with the baby and wife and doing daily things, and I started writing immediately. Because I have a loose and comfortable contract with my new record company, it was great to be able to go in and start recording as it was percolating."
In stark contrast to the frustrations of Bowie's relationships with various record labels in the 1990s and early 2000s, Columbia's enthusiasm for his natural recording pace was evidently suiting David very well: for the first time in recent memory, he was back to making an album a year. "They said they would agree to this when I first took my ISO label to them," he explained in 2003. "I said, 'Look, I will require that I can put out stuff when I want to, and I don't want to have one of those sell-through dates inflicted on me,' which is what you usually get: 'Oh, we've got another 18 months until you can do that.' They've been great so far, and when I hit them with a new album they're ready for it."
Following the success of Heathen, there was no question that Bowie's renewed partnership with Tony Visconti would continue. "We made Heathen our kind of debut reunion record," David explained. "The circumstances, the environment, everything about it was just perfect for us to find out if we still had a chemistry that was really effective. And it worked out. It was perfect, not a step out of place, as though we had just come from the previous album into this one. It was quite stunningly comfortable to work with each other again." In November 2002 Bowie and Visconti reunited to lay initial plans for their next studio project. The recent concerts had invigorated David's appetite for touring, and the challenge on this occasion was to create an album that would be, as he later put it, "built to play live". The result was Reality, a more muscular, rock-based album than its predecessor, fashioned with an eye to the major world tour that would begin in the autumn of 2003 and continue into the following summer.
One of the fundamental creative resolutions that would shape the development of Reality was Bowie's decision not to return to the remote mountain surroundings of Allaire Studios that had played host to Heathen; instead, the new album would be recorded at Looking Glass Studios in New York City, previously the venue for most of the Earthling and 'hours...' sessions. David had by no means lost interest in the rural setting of Allaire; on the contrary, in January 2003 he even purchased the neighbouring 64-acre Little Tonche Mountain in Shokan, with a view to building a country retreat. "I love mountains," he told the New York Post. "I'm a Capricorn. I was born to be gallivanting on a peak somewhere." For a confirmed city-dweller who had always seemed the most reluctant of mountain residents during his years in Switzerland, this was a remarkable turn of events. "I was never a Woodstocky kind of person, at all, ever," he admitted, "but when I got up there, I flipped at how beautiful it is. There's a barrenness and sturdiness in the rugged terrain that draws me."
Notwithstanding this newfound affinity for the wilderness, the new album was to see a wholehearted return to the more familiar streetwise milieu of Bowie's lyrical and musical world; as ever, his songwriting and music would be directly affected by his surroundings. "I'm terribly influenced by geography and where I am," he remarked. "My albums are pretty good snapshots of where I was and what I was going through when I was there. You can feel the Catskill Mountains in Heathen. You can feel the spirituality." By way of contrast, Reality would prove to be as urban a record as any he had made.
Following a couple of days' preliminary work in November 2002, the Reality sessions proper began at Looking Glass in early January 2003. Bowie initially brought in four or five demos that he had prepared on his home equipment, but these were very basic: "I don't want my home to be taken over by the recording process," he told Sound On Sound. "I'm very wary of that. I really saved everything for working over at Looking Glass."
Although Looking Glass Studio A offered the most spacious of the facilities at Philip Glass's venue, Bowie opted to record Reality in the more cramped surroundings of Studio B, which was rented by Tony Visconti on a semi-permanent basis. "We wanted the record to have a real tight New York sound," said Visconti. "David loves the sound of Studio B. We did a little bit of work in there at the end of Heathen, and it was because we liked it so much that I started to rent it. Then, when he wanted to work at Looking Glass again for these latest sessions, I assumed we were going to book Studio A, but he said, 'No, I want to do as much as I can in your room.' The monitoring in there is terrific, and anything that I bring out of that room sounds really good."
The studio band assembled for the Reality sessions reflected the success of the 2002 live dates, replacing many of the Heathen personnel with a tighter line-up composed largely of Bowie's touring musicians: Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard on guitar, Sterling Campbell on drums, Mike Garson on piano, and Mark Plati on guitar and bass. Bowie's live bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and multi-instrumentalist Catherine Russell contributed only backing vocals to the Reality sessions. Further guitar overdubs would be provided by Heathen veteran David Torn, while Matt Chamberlain's drum part for "Bring Me The Disco King" was taken from "When The Boys Come Marching Home", recorded during the Heathen sessions two years earlier.
Before the band arrived, the new compositions were demoed at Looking Glass by Bowie and Visconti with the help of assistant engineer Mario J McNulty. "We talk an awfully large amount when we make a record," Visconti said later. "We can talk for hours without recording anything, then suddenly, we strike when the iron is hot and record at a relentless pace for several hours." In keeping with the spontaneity that Bowie and Visconti had always enjoyed in the studio, much of the demo material survived on the final album. "Inevitably, we'd hardly redo anything," Visconti recalled. "I always record things carefully in the first place, because I know we're not going to redo them, and so a lot of the demo parts ended up on the final version." As a result, several of the bass parts on Reality was played by Visconti himself rather than by Mark Plati, who had originally been lined up to record them: "Before the band came in, I'd played bass on all of the demos," explained Visconti, "and some of my bass parts eventually made it all the way to the album in preference to Mark Plati's. This was the case on "New Killer Star" - Mark had a go at it, but there was some kind of personality in my bass playing that David preferred, and the same applied to "The Loneliest Guy", "Days" and "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon". It's Mark's bass on all the other tracks, including the part I wrote for "Looking For Water". Similarly, Mario McNulty's percussion on "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" would be retained on the final album.
Bowie continued in the tradition of Heathen by playing many of the instruments himself, including guitar, saxophone, Stylophone and keyboards. Mike Garson would be entrusted with the prominent piano parts on tracks like "The Loneliest Guy" and "Bring Me The Disco King", but the lion's share of the more textural synthesiser work was played by Bowie himself. "He loves his Korg Trinity," said Visconti. "He knows it intimately, and he can just dial up sounds at will. When he was writing his songs he made notes of certain sounds that he wanted to use, and he ended up playing most of the sonic landscape parts; the big string parts, choirs and so on." However, Bowie's favourite new toy was not a keyboard but a striking white 1956 Supro Dual Tone guitar, which he had purchased on eBay and entrusted to the Staten Island instrument restorer Flip Scipio, the result being an instrument which, in Visconti's words, "was never meant to sound so good." This guitar was of the same make used by Link Wray on his 1958 single "Rumble", a groundbreaking early classic of avant-garde rock which became something of a band favourite during the Reality sessions and the subsequent tour.
"There's a sense of freedom working with Tony that I rarely find with other producer's," David enthused. "A non-judgemental situation where I can just fart about and play quite badly on all manner of instruments, and Tony doesn't laugh! I can't tell you how important it is to feel that free in the studio, and that somebody isn't judging your musical abilities. Often, when I've done something with Tony, it just sounds right. It might not be played perfectly - there's no virtuosity on the keyboards or anything - but there's a certain way that I'll put a B flat into a chord that nobody else would, probably because they've been trained properly, and it just sounds interesting. Well, Tony can spot that, whereas a lot of other producers will say, 'Whoo, that B flat's a bit suspect'. I'll be thinking, 'Ah, shit! No, that sounds good, Mr Producer!'"
For his part, Visconti praised Bowie's intuitive ability to get the best out of his producer, noting that Bowie "hasn't forgotten a thing. He'll suddenly just turn around and, referring to a very tight digital delay, he'll say, 'You know that sound you got on my voice on Young Americans? I want that for the chorus.' He's got a good mental picture of how something should sound."
As usual, the bass, percussion and rhythm guitar parts were cut live to create the initial rhythm tracks before the addition of vocals and overdubs. "The melodies were sketchy, the lyrics were sketchy, and so there was no point in recording lead guitars and other things at that stage," explained Visconti. "Sterling, Mark and David would often play along to a click track that we had on the demos, consisting of a basic drum loop from a drum box, together with a scratch keyboard or scratch guitar and David's vocal." As on Heathen, Visconti's preference for old-fashioned analogue recording had a bearing on the sessions: "We initially recorded to 16-track analogue tape because I just love the sound," he explained. "I'd talked David into working that way on Heathen - I told him it was really worth doing because we'd capture the analogue compression and warmth on digital. When we'd transfer it, the sound would still be there, and that proved to be right on Heathen, so we started this new album in exactly the same way."
An initial eight-day session yielded eight basic tracks, after which rhythm guitars and vocals were added. "Very odd chord sequences on this new stuff," David revealed to BowieNet as recording progressed. "Definitely, on a couple of songs, patterns that I've not used before." At this stage, the spirit was still firmly one of experimentation. "We would record vocals and have no idea as to whether we'd keep them," explained Visconti. "By the end of the album, I'd have at least three different vocal sessions for each song." Although the majority of David's vocals were selected from single takes, they were occasionally composited on the final album: "Any vocals that we did in February were matched up with any vocals we did in May," said Visconti. "We could easily cut from one vocal track to another. Each time, David would usually do two passes and call it quits, because he goes for feel and passion. He sings great, he's always singing in tune, he always sings full voice, so there's never any need for eight or nine David Bowie vocal takes. I know it and he knows it."
Visconti was full of praise for Bowie's vocal technique. "He's gifted and he's also intuitive," the producer told Sound On Sound. "Sometimes I would coach him if I needed to remind him about something he'd done earlier, or I might make a suggestion - some line might require more angst or whatever - and he's receptive to anything like that. He's a consummate professional, and I'm really blessed to be working with such a great singer. Also, he recently gave up smoking, so he's recaptured some of his high range. He'd lost at least five semitones, and he's now gained most of them back." By the time of the Reality sessions, Bowie had succeeded in staying off the cigarettes for over a year. "It's hard," he remarked in 2003, "and it's still going to be hard in 10 years"; elsewhere he declared that smoking had been "without doubt the toughest thing to quit in the world", more so than drink and drugs. David now satisfied his addictive urges with nothing more life-threatening than herbal tea-tree sticks, which duly appeared in several photo-shoots during the Reality period and on which, he freely confessed, he was now hooked.
While lead guitar was entrusted to Earl Slick, the more ambient guitar overdubs were provided by Heathen veterans David Torn, whose contributions include the trilling riff underpinning "New Killer Star", and Gerry Leonard, whose madcap Spanish guitar lends an idiosyncratic touch to "Pablo Picasso". Once the guitar overdubs had been added, Bowie and Visconti became concerned that the percussion tracks lacked the ambience and impact of those on the previous album, a fact which they concluded was down to the acoustic quality of the spacious Allaire Studios where Heathen was recorded. They decided to take the remarkable if logical step of carrying the Looking Glass drum recordings to Allaire Studios and playing them back through the monitors, thus capturing the unique ambience of the Heathen venue. The resulting tracks were mixed with the untreated Looking Glass recordings to various degrees. "The result is that there might be a slight difference, but overall it sounds as if the drum kit was at Allaire," concluded Visconti. "This is especially so on "Pablo Picasso", while about 40 per cent of the drums on "Looking For Water" was captured in the Allaire room. It's got a nice one-second decay in there, which is ideal for drums."
In April David revealed in his BowieNet journal that he had written 16 songs for the album, eight of which he was "mad for". The songwriting process was as eclectic as ever: some pieces were created by fashioning a melody over a series of looped chords, while others began life as more conventional pieces of songwriting. "I guess something that was virtually looped on this album was "Looking For Water", and so a secondary consideration was the melodic content on top," David revealed, "whereas "She'll Drive The Big Car" was specifically a written piece. It's self-evident when you know that and then hear the songs."
As always, Bowie's new songs were written from the diverse points of view of a cast of characters, each existing at a remove from the songwriter himself. "I think this album is more anecdotal, and there are past glimpses of people that I felt I might have known, or that I did know," he explained, "amalgams of people from New York really." Thus "She'll Drive The Big Car" eavesdrops on the emotions of a disappointed heroine just as "Life On Mars?" had done many years earlier, while "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" is, in Bowie's words, "an ugly song sung by an ugly man". The narrator of "The Loneliest Guy" is an isolated soul whose ancestry can be traced back through compositions as diverse as "Algeria Touchshriek", "Sound And Vision" and "Conversation Piece". "I guess it's just this Greco-Roman notion of turning something nebulous into a personification that you can recognise, like a deity," Bowie mused. "You know, back then, they would transform a set of emotions into a god. I just convert ideas into people. It's just easier to handle them that way."
The sessions continued on and off until late May 2003, with mixing continuing at Looking Glass. As with Heathen, Visconti created an additional 5.1 mix of the album for release on SACD and related formats. As mixing got under way, David announced to the world in June that the new album was to be called Reality, and told Blender magazine that "This album is a bit thrusty. I'm not sure if being thrusty is a great thing at age 56, but I suppose it's better than being dead - or limp."
There's a part of David Bowie that definitely does not want to repeat himself, so we were committed to avoiding the Heathen formula," said Visconti. "We realised that we'd created this kind of genre for Heathen, and we wanted to go in another direction. I'd referred to that album as his 'magnum opus' - I told him, 'That was more like a symphony, and you can't write too many of those.' I mean, the great composers didn't write a new symphony every couple of months. Heathen consisted of very broad strokes and a grand sonic landscape - there were layers and layers of overdubs - whereas for Reality he wanted to change to something that he and his live band could play on stage with great immediacy, without the need for synthesizer patches and backing tracks. He wanted to make this more of a band album."
Bowie concurred: "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."
That Reality is steeped in the atmospheres, moods and environs of New York is apparent from even the most cursory glance at the lyrics: many of the songs find Bowie's characters struggling with the pressures and challenges of urban America - there are 'city spires', 'streets', 'buildings', 'sidewalks', 'chrome', 'glass', and 'metal' wherever you look, and the string of specific local references is unparalleled by any other collection of Bowie songs since perhaps Aladdin Sane: the lyrics on Reality bristle with references to Battery Park, Riverside Drive, the Hudson River, Ludlow and Grand, and New York itself, which is even name-dropped in Jonathan Richman's obligingly appropriate lyrics for "Pablo Picasso". "Downtown was always mythological," Bowie told the Miami Herald in 2003. "This is where the beatniks were, and the Beat poets, and the early songwriters, and the Dylans, and jazz started here as well. It's a musician writer's dream to go and live in the Village."
A strong sense of place had been a key creative priority throughout Bowie's career. "The albums that I've written out of character with the place where I'm living have often been failures," he reflected. "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 out what would be right for the album. In all, I think we only left off two or three songs."
Given the wider geopolitical background against which the album was written and recorded, the resonance of 9/11 and its wide-ranging after-effects could not help but be felt on Reality. "The irrational feelings that you get on a day-to-day basis, living here since 9/11, have left a decided mark on this record," Bowie told Blender, but at the same time he was keen to point out that Reality was not "about" the terrorist attacks any more than it was about New York. "I didn't want to get crippled by all the events of the last couple of years," he told Interview magazine. "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."
Over and above specific circumstances of geography and politics, Reality approaches many of the ideas already explored by Heathen, albeit in a different, perhaps optimistic spirit. "This album is a counterpoint to the idea of a spiritual search," David explained. "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 we're living through and a strong sense of place. It was unwitting, though, because I wasn't planning on doing that."
And so, once again, Reality finds Bowie dismantling and reassembling the imponderable questions he addressed throughout his career as a writer. "Writing this record...was almost like remaking something out of the bits and pieces that have been left after this great, awful upheaval," he explained. "I'm doing it metaphysically with my songs, grabbing these artefacts and putting them together in a quite substantial manner so that there's something there that I recognise as a truth. It's just a human trait to want to continually make a bridge between separate things, to want to forge links. It comes from our desperate need to find a truth to get us through to the next day. But these days, everything we create and put together as true is almost immediately debunked. That's what's so slippery. I suppose the positive thing about creating these anchors and watching them be torn apart is that the process helps us understand the chaos that is the actuality of our existence."
A prevalent theme on the album appears to be the debasement of the very concept of 'reality' in western culture. Bowie had always been fascinated by the media's provocatively corruptible relationship with real events, a syndrome pushed to new extremes during the early years of the twenty-first century by the televising of wars and terrorist atrocities between the commercial breaks. More than ever, reality has become a subjective commodity in the hands of the headline-makers and politicians who massage the facts into whatever shapes suit their requirements; and, amid an atmosphere of galloping disenfranchisement which shrugs impotently as an unelected president declares war on the basis of an expedient fiction, the only democratic process for which the populace seems to retain any enthusiasm is to be found in the mind-numbing bread and circuses of 'Reality TV', which purports to convey unmediated truth but is, for any number of reasons, anything but real.
"I feel that reality has become an abstract for so many people over the last twenty years," Bowie told Sound On Sound. "Things that they regarded as truths seem to have just melted away, and it's almost as if we're thinking post-philosophically now. There's nothing to rely on anymore. No knowledge, only interpretation of those facts that we seem to be inundated with on a daily basis. Knowledge seems to have been left behind and there's a sense that we are adrift at sea. There's nothing more to hold onto, and of course, political circumstances just push that boat further out." This, as he explained to Interview magazine, was a concern that informed the ironic title and subject matter of Reality: "This is probably a period when, more than any other time, the idea that our absolutes are disintegrating is manifest in real terms. Truths that we always thought we could stand by are crumbling before our eyes. It really is quite traumatic."
David also reiterated the feelings about the chaotic breakdown of the hierarchy of information which he had first expressed at the time of 1.Outside: "We live in a world where every headline is famous for 15 minutes. You know: 'At War With America', 'Britney Spears Wears A T-Shirt', 'Saddam Is Still On The Loose' - they all get the same space, the same time. It creates a situation where all news seems equally important. I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. If you have an enquiring mind, you can really pick through it all and find some semblance of the things that you want to find. But I think, for most people, the process is just so fundamentally overwhelming that they'll accept whatever they happen to be looking at that evening."
From these considerations arise the vignettes of stranded individuals, bewildered lives and disappointed dreams that make up much of Reality. "I wonder about the great sense of indifference that seems to be creeping into the culture," Bowie mused. "I think at least partially it has to do with the paralysing factor of having to wade through so much information to arrive at some approximation of what is really happening. But it also has something to do with this feeling amongst people that the power has totally been taken away from them, that whatever they say is not going to affect the course of events. I imagine part of the appeal of 'reality shows' is that people suddenly feel like they have a voice - they can say 'Number three is a good dancer', 'Number four has a better ass'."
Despite this bleak outlook, Bowie was at pains to stress that he intended Reality to be a more positive album than Heathen, even while describing the defiant optimism of "New Killer Star" as "essentially just something to hang onto." The impulse to discover a renewed sense of optimism was, he told Interview, a result of becoming a parent for the second time: "You see, as much as the album is trying to create anchors that I know actually aren't there, there are also these devices that I need to put into my life so that my daughter has the impression from her dad that she has some kind of future. I can't talk about negativity in the same way as I would have done before she was born - every time I say, 'The world is fucked up and not worth living in', she's going to look at me and say, 'Well, thanks for bringing me into it.' I'm morally obliged to find whatever out there is worth living for." This was the theme to which Bowie returned repeatedly in interviews during 2003. In the Miami Herald, he confessed: "To be quite honest, I don't feel particularly positive or optimistic about things, but I try to redirect that energy," while in Word magazine he insisted that the album was "not 'woe is me', it's not a Diamond Dogs. I want the ultimate feeling after hearing it to be a good feeling. That there is something to be said for our future and it will be a good future." In Performing Songwriter he pondered: "Maybe I wouldn't have bothered so much, or maybe this album wouldn't have had that half-hearted attempt to find the silver lining if I didn't have my daughter. Because it's very easy for me to be quite nihilistic...I think that things are pretty much as they have always been for the last 25,000 years. I don't think we're really evolving much above the caveman sensibility. It's still about surviving and killing and looking after one's immediate family. Not much more than that has happened, frankly. Technologically, obviously, things have moved along at a speed that we don't understand, nor can control, because our emotional and spiritual sides are so far behind our abilities to manufacture stuff. So I'm not very positive, but I have to change all that."
In all of these statements can be seen evidence of a new identity that had been gradually emerging in David Bowie since his full-time return to New York at the end of the 1990s: as had been demonstrated by his work for the Tibet House Trust, the Robin Hood Foundation, Artists For Literacy, War Child and a dozen other charitable organisations, by his increasing distaste for the Bush administration, and by Iman's role as ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Bowies had by now become central figures among New York's liberal-intellectual elite, playing their part in the humanitarian conscience of Manhattan culture.
However, as always, Bowie was at pains to point out that Reality makes no pretence to be a coherent or premeditated manifesto of ideas. "The album has no big point," he told Interview's Ingrid Sischy. "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."
When asked by the Boston Globe about his religious beliefs, Bowie intimated that the spiritual struggle that had been so manifest on Heathen was continuing unabated. "It's cowardly," he admitted of his own wavering conviction. "It's 'I believe in you, I don't believe in you, I believe in you, I don't believe in you.' I think, 'Make up your mind! Get off the fence!' But you know what? That kind of vacillation is just a byword in my spiritual life. It's terrible and I get racked with stress about this, but it always has been that way with me. Ever since I was a teenager, there has been this endless search. And as I get to those days of finality, it becomes less and less clear. The only thing I know is that none of the questions I ever ask will be answered, not in this lifetime. But it still doesn't stop me from asking." If Reality's keynote is a determination to battle onward and upward in defiance of the spiritual anxiety that had dominated Heathen, then it might be argued that the album's key line is the couplet from "New Killer Star": "All my idiot questions / Let's face the music and dance".
"Reality, to me, is about the lack of consciousness in people's lives these days; in other words, the denial of what is reality," suggested Tony Visconti. "Or maybe it's about being spiritually empty. But I can assure you he doesn't phone me up and say, 'Let's make an album about spiritual emptiness today'."
The sense of our (and Bowie's, and the album's) endlessly ambiguous relationship with reality is emphasised by the strikingly odd packaging design, the result of a collaboration between Heathen typographer Jonathan Barnbrook and graphic artist Rex Ray, who had previously worked on the cover designs of 'hours...' and 2002's Best Of Bowie. Ray's artwork rejects the airbrushed cool and ostentatious intellectualism of the Heathen imagery in favour of a garish anime-style cartoon of Bowie, his familiar features distorted by the simplified lines, exaggerated hairstyle and outsized saucer eyes that are the trademarks of Japanese animation. The cartoon Bowie strides forward from an abstract background of scribbled shapes, ink-blots, daubs of paint, blobs, balloons and clip-art stars. "The album's packaging has a Hello Kitty feel to it," explained Bowie, referring to the kitsch Japanese cartoon character franchise. "It's an anime- or a manga-type character in an abstract background that plays off the whole inappropriateness and lovability of that whole cartoony world, with the word 'Reality' slapped against it. It is kind of a cheap punch, but it looks right. The typography for the album, too, looks almost hammy. It's just this idea that the word 'reality' has become so devalued. It's like it has been damaged, so we reconcile it, or we put the word 'virtual' in front of it to give it any sense. I don't know - maybe the word 'reality' has outlived its use." Asked about the album cover in another interview, he remarked more bluntly that "The whole thing has a subtext of 'I'm taking the piss, this is not supposed to be reality'."
In the weeks prior to its release the album was promoted by BowieNet's "Reality Jukebox", which showcased online excerpts of each track, and by various publicity stunts like a CD-ROM feature released by the Sunday Times. However, in most territories Reality was not supported by conventional single releases. Apple had launched its iTunes Music Store in April 2003, and it was already clear that the market for CD singles was fast evaporating. "New Killer Star" appeared as a CD single in Italy and Canada, but in the UK and elsewhere it was confined to a DVD-only single which appeared two weeks after the album's release. "Never Get Old" went no further than a promo CD before being reassigned as a download single in the UK: the times they were a-changing, and in any case Bowie gave every indication that he had lost interest in the singles market and was increasingly disdainful of the transient chart-fodder that dominated it. In 2002 he had made disparaging remarks about the British appetite for "Kylie and Robbie and Pop Idol and stuff like that. You can't get away from that when you hit the shore, so I know all about the cruise ship entertainment aspect of British pop." In 2003 he told Radio 1's Mark Radcliffe that "I'm not sure that many people these days want to get something out of music - they just want something on in the background, while they're walking down the street, you know."
Reality was released in Europe and most other territories on September 15th 2003, and in America the next day. Following the precedent set by Heathen, the album initially appeared in two CD formats: a standard single disc, and a 2CD version in a card sleeve whose bonus disc featured the out-takes "Fly" and "Queen Of All The Tarts (Overture)", as well as the new studio recording of "Rebel Rebel". The Japanese version boasted an extra track in the form of "Waterloo Sunset". In the weeks and months following the initial release there would come a dizzying variety of further versions, beginning with the "Tour Edition", whose release was staggered to coincide with the arrival of A Reality Tour in each new territory, beginning with the European release in November, This edition added "Waterloo Sunset" and a DVD of the Riverside Studios cinema performance of Reality recorded on September 8th 2003 (December's Canadian "Tour Edition" differed in that the DVD only featured five songs). Next came the SACD release, Reality coinciding with that format's brief period of popularity; in September EMI reissued newly remixed SACD editions of three classic Bowie albums - Ziggy Stardust, Scary Monsters and Let's Dance.
In February 2004 Columbia released a trial version of Reality in the brand new DualDisc format, featuring a normal CD version of the album on one side of the disc and the 5.1 mix in DVD-Audio format on the reverse. Initially restricted to a trial market in the Boston and Seattle areas of the US before worldwide release 12 months later, this version was of particular interest to collector's in that the DVD element also included a photo gallery and the otherwise unavailable Reality promotional film, featuring filmed clips to accompany "Never Get Old", "The Loneliest Guy", "Bring Me The Disco King" and "New Killer Star". One format from which the album was conspicuously absent was vinyl: Reality would not receive an official LP release until 2014, after the resurgence of vinyl's popularity.
In Britain Reality was an immediate hit, entering the UK chart at number 3 (Starsailor's Silence Is Easy was at number 2, while The Darkness topped the chart with Permission To Land), marking the highest UK chart position for a new Bowie album since Black Tie White Noise a decade earlier. In other territories the news was similarly good: Reality went top ten in 20 countries, reaching number 3 in Germany and Austria, number 2 in France , Greece, Portugal, Russia and Norway and topping the charts in Denmark and the Czech Republic. On Billboard's European Top 100 Albums chart, Reality entered at number 1. By contrast, in the US it failed to match Heathen's performance, although its number 29 peak was still a considerable improvement on 'hours...' and Earthling, and "New Killer Star" garnered the now seemingly obligatory Grammy nomination for "Male Rock Vocal Performance". A Brit Awards nomination for "Best British Male Artist" followed in 2004.
Critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The ever-predictable "best album since Scary Monsters" mantra was once again trotted out in reviews everywhere, but on this occasion the critics' short-term memory proved marginally better than usual, many recalling that they had also liked Heathen and remarking that Reality proved that it was no flash in the pan. "With each listen, Reality feels stronger than Heathen," said the Miami Herald, "That's two good ones in a row." Dotmusic's online review went further, claiming that "If Heathen was a little overpraised by relieved critics, then Reality is a more deserving case. Now we can all relax a little and get used to Bowie being back in the zone...Not one to miss an opportunity, he doesn't stray far from the template he set up on Heathen...But the songs are better." In conclusion: "Bowie's best since Scary Monsters, yet again."
In the Mail On Sunday, Tim De Lisle noted approvingly that "this record pulsates with creative vigour", offering "a gleaming showcase for his voice, or rather voices. Bowie has always been several people and most of them are here." Noting the melancholy preoccupations of the lyrics, David Sinclair in The Times welcomed "an album which could mark the opening of a rich seam, provided his bleak cast of mind does not get the better of him". Q's Garry Mulholland noted "the vague references to current violent events contained within the likes of "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" and "New Killer Star", and concluded that "If Bowie's great '70s era was buoyed by a reckless hedonistic adventure followed by an elegantly exhausted ennui, then the best of Reality sounds like a man coming to terms with what was lost in those mad years and the saving graces of love and stability." The result, he considered, was "Bowie's best music since Scary Monsters."
The Boston Globe remarked on the album's sense of spiritual anxiety, noting that "There's a restlessness to much of the music that not only makes for a great album but suggests that Bowie is struggling more than ever for answers." The NME's Tim Wild commended Reality's "sweet collection of songs", singling out "Bring Me The Disco King" "a true thing of beauty - dark NY jazz, delivered with the confidence of a man who knows he can do exactly what he wants."
The prevailing critical opinion was summed up in an eloquent New York Times review by Mim Udovitch, who noted approvingly that "Reality is more than a bit thrusty", praising "the impeccable production of Tony Visconti", the "buried, exultant background vocals, random discordant touches and vibrant, layered arrangements", and the sense of immediacy that "makes you feel that Mr Bowie and his spectacularly hard-rocking band might be about to materialise in your living room ready for an encore." Udovitch went on to suggest that Bowie's ongoing dialogue with his personal beliefs "conveys the sense of an urgently felt personal communication", asserting that "The burst of bitter energy that results from this struggle is exhilirating rather than depressing. It is also moving," and concluding that "It's a rather singular accomplishment that Reality makes the personal contemplation of mortality sound so crashingly, defiantly vital...In short, it has all the alchemy of a great rock record - songs about death that were made to be played loud and live."
Uncut's Chris Roberts rejoiced in Bowie's reclamation of straight-ahead pop-rock as a vessel for his unique songwriting talent: "Over its stomping drums and squalling guitars he drapes lovely, left-handed songs, rich with unexpected angles, daring detours and words which muse over mortality yet emerge seeming upbeat. Reality is lyrically mournful; musically euphoric. It's pop, frisky pop, but with plenty of couplets about how everything falls away...the album's littered with quips and sighs about time passing...It's a very, very good sexy-angst album. For real."
As Roberts rightly points out, one of Reality's triumphs is its successful fusion of intelligent songwriting with a reinvigorated sense of rock attack: as Bowie's "thrusty" soundbite had indicated, Reality emerges as a more primal piece of work than the delicate, self-consciously artful Heathen. It's noticeable that while he had cited such influences as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler during the Heathen sessions, at the time of Reality much of his talk was of The Dandy Warhols, Grandaddy, Radiohead (whom he described as "awesome" and "the best band around") and Blur (whose 2003 album Think Tank he judged "a first class piece of work"). In this respect the two albums bear a similar relationship to that between 1.Outside and Earthling, or Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust: as so often in Bowie's career, two consecutive albums share the same thematic and musical bloodline, but once again the second of the pair finds the cerebral and ethereal making certain concessions to the visceral. This certainly doesn't mean that Reality is in any way less intelligent or less finely wrought than its predecessor; merely that it catches Bowie in the more instinctive songwriting mode that periodically alternates with his more self-absorbed phases. The result is an album that seems at first sight to offer less complexity and fewer sonic layers than Heathen, but at the same time deploys a greater abundance of catchy hooks and buoyant pop-rock atmospherics: Reality was Bowie's most immediately melodic album in many a long year, positively bursting with infectious riffs and memorable tunes. The swaggering guitars of "New Killer Star", the fabulous soul-funk of "She'll Drive The Big Car", the deliciously catchy hooks of "Never Get Old", and the final hypnotic brilliance of "Bring Me The Disco King" effortlessly take their place among the Bowie classics.
But Reality's masterstroke is that despite its warmer, more approachable atmosphere, it sacrifices none of Heathen's artistic sensibility; its lasting value lies not just in its infectious melodies and evocative lyrics, but in the exquisitely judged oddness of its sonic textures, from the deranged guitar wobbles underpinning the riffs to the proliferation of weird and wonderful percussion effects, defiantly strange washes of synthesizer, Stylophone, sax and harmonica, and the joyously brilliant piano virtuosity of Mike Garson. As on Heathen, Tony Visconti's guiding hand is much in evidence, giving full rein to Bowie's experimental spirit while simultaneously imposing the discretion, economy and de-cluttering that allow the music to breathe, enabling Bowie to inhabit the songs with a dramatic sense of intimacy and immediacy. The lyrics are by turns dignified, intelligent, funny and moving, the two cover versions converging immaculately with the mood and intent of Bowie's own compositions. Reality finds Bowie returning, as he put it, "to the themes that have gnawed at me since I was a teenager - trying to find a spiritual connection, a sense of isolation, and a vague futurism." The result is not just a worthy successor to Heathen, but a fine and substantial addition to the canon, delivered with maturity, confidence and panache.