David Bowie: Reality

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David Bowie

Album: Reality
Label: ISO/Columbia

In a TV ad for his new album Reality, David Bowie wakes up and wanders through a house filled with his discarded personas, interrupting Ziggy Stardust as he grooms himself, wandering past the dumbstruck fellow from the cover of Heroes, and staring down the man-beast of Diamond Dogs. It's a clever spot, but also a telling one. Bowie may have sworn off his past with his 1990 tour, but his past hasn't sworn off him. With varying degrees of success, his past few discs have taken this or that discarded guise out for a stroll, most satisfyingly with last year's Heathen, a throwback to the grandiose sound of Bowie's late-'70s Berlin period. So Reality comes as something of a curveball. Neither a calculated trip to Bowie's past nor a wagon-hitching ride to current pop trends, the album has an energy all its own. Though it extends Heathen's reunion with classic-era producer Tony Visconti, Reality largely trades its predecessor's eerie, meditative tone for pulse and drive, never better than on the album-opening single "New Killer Star." Weird sounds bubble and pop against intense guitars as Bowie scares up weird imagery about "seeing Jesus on Dateline" and looking at a "great white scar over Battery Park." It doesn't make a lot of sense, but then, making sense has never been what Bowie does best. But that doesn't rob "The Loneliest Guy" of its poignancy, or spoil the oddly chosen but effective George Harrison cover "Try Some, Buy Some." The overall results fall short of past Bowie landmarks, but most of Reality still scores points for more than just effort. "Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole," goes a line from the classic Modern Lovers song Bowie radically reworks here. True enough, but Picasso did occasionally coast on his reputation. On Reality, Bowie sounds determined not to do the same.