“Reality” was released on September 15th 2003, hot on the heels of the “Heathen” tour. What nobody knew at the time was that this was to be the last new David Bowie album release for 10 years. While on the “A Reality Tour” Bowie suffered a heart attack on stage in June 2004 and, after an emergency operation in Germany to fix a blocked artery, withdrew from the stage, the public eye and the recording studio. He took on the role of happily married Dad and to all intents and purposes looked like he had retired from the music business.
Bowie now had his own record label, ISO, and an agreement with Columbia that they would release his records when he had them ready and not against some rigid company release schedule. Reality was recorded very soon after the “Heathen” tour and with many of the musicians he was working with live (Gail-Ann Dorsey, Mike Garson, Earl Slick, Mark Plati, Gerry Leonard and Sterling Campbell) and with Tony Visconti again producing.
“Throughout Heathen and Reality he was in such a good place. On the road he had such a blast, smiling all the day, I’d never seen him happier. We had a good run for about four years straight.” Earl Slick: “David Bowie: A Life” Dylan Jones
“Reality” was recorded at Looking Glass Studios in New York. The idea was to record an album that relied on the musicians and not technology, to make it so Bowie and his band could go out and play it live without relying on banks of synths and sequencers. He wanted a sense of urgency to the music and that comes from people and not machines. It also comes from the environment in which the recordings took place. Bowie had been living in New York for 10 years at this point and the city appears in references throughout the songs. Bowie was keen to explain though that it was not his “New York album“ (the opening lyric on the first song is “See the great white scar, Over Battery Park” and further such NY references litter this album).
“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.” David Bowie, The Word magazine, October 2003
“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
“Reality” contains 11 songs, 9 originals and 2 covers (Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” and George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some”). It’s a tougher, more “rock” album than its immediate predecessors, made in the city and sounding of the city. In places “Reality” comes on a bit Indie rock, Bowie had recently covered the Pixies and here he went with Jonathan Richman. “New Killer Star” has a definite Indie feel about it, Side 2’s “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon” has a similar vibe with the loose and low growling guitars driving both along.
“Never Get Old” must have been one of Bowie’s favourites or regarded as a pivotal song on the album. He performed it on at least 3 appearances on US chat shows to promote the albums release. It featured in his live set through 2003 and 2004 and eventually was sped up and mashed up with “Rebel Rebel” as “Rebel Never Gets Old” (https://youtu.be/_n0_jpyMGvY). It’s a great groove based on a simple, funky guitar riff. “The Loneliest Guy” is a beautiful if unnerving song about one of Bowie’s favourite recurring characters, the loner living apart and on their memories.
“Days” is a beautiful pop song wrapped around a lyric of great regret and atoning for past and future misdemeanours. “Try Some, Buy Some” is surprisingly good with some unsettling guitar parts running through it. The title track is a full on turn it up to 11 all guitars blazing rocker. We close on “Bring Me The Disco King”, a cool jazzy vibe led by Mike Garson’s piano and subtle brushed drums. It’s not at all representative of the rest of the album but it’s a real winner to my ears.
I haven’t covered every song, there’s plenty more to discover in here. “Reality” overall sounds very up, optimistic, a result he claimed of becoming a father again. Bowie told Word magazine
“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”
One last strange morsel, the cover artwork has been widely criticised by Bowie fans (!). The anime style Bowie on the sleeve was designed by Rex Ray who commented on the image in 2008 “I can’t begin to describe the enormous responsibility of coming up with a hairstyle for David Bowie“. For what it’s worth, I like it.
Never Get Old - https://youtu.be/7NorNUMoewQ