By 2003, Bowie had been releasing solid albums at a rate of about one every two years. “Reality” seemed to be the latest— a good but not necessarily great album. Terrific. What’s next? Little did we know that it would be Bowie’s last album for a decade. During that time, the imagery of “Reality” was frozen in time on Bowie’s web site, and it seemed distinctly possible that it was Bowie’s final studio album. The album has aged well— today I can listen to it over and over again in succession— but considering the deliberate closure Bowie established with “Blackstar,” it is also easy to imagine that the body of his work would have been appreciated differently had “Reality” been a somewhat random last chapter.
As was the case with “Earthling” following “1. Outside,” I was slightly disappointed with “Reality” on the heels of the magnificent, “Heathen.” “Reality” does not mark a shift in style from the previous album, but rather a continuation, almost as if it was a bonus album in the style of “The Next Day Extra.” One of the best outgrowths of “Reality” was the tour, captured on the “A Reality Tour” live album, where songs like “The Loneliest Guy,” “Days,” and “Bring Me the Disco Kings” fit in well with songs from “Heathen.” This is the case with most of the songs, but still, I like “Heathen” even more. With time, for me, the two albums together have blended together as a two-part collection of songs, so the disappointment factor has waned.
“Heathen” was released coincident with the world reacting to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Some of the songs were interpreted in that light at the time, though Bowie had written them before the attacks. Not so with, “Reality.” It’s somber tone was created with the changed world— changed reality— very much in Bowie’s mind. This is most on display in the opening song, “New Killer Star,” which references a scar in the sky over Battery Park.
But in retrospect, the album is less about the post 9/11 world and more about Bowie’s mortality. “Never Get Old” is kinda the tipoff. But “She’ll Drive A Big Car” is also about aging, with the protagonist being weighed down by the boredom of what her suburban life had become. “Disco King” is…I don’t know what its actually about…or why Bowie built up a mythology about it having its origins in the 1970s…but it seems to be a reflective lament about an earlier time. “Days” reflects upon “all the days of my life” wherein “All I’ve done, I’ve done for me, All you gave, you gave for free, I gave nothing in return, and there’s little left of me.”
Almost every song on this album is about aging, loss and failing energy. “Looking for Water,” which is oddly but almost certainly consciously reminiscent of the 1987 song, “Glass Spider” (“Gone, gone, the water’s all gone”), contains the lines, “I lost God in a New York Minute, Don’t know about you but my heart’s not in it.” As if to provide a key to understanding the album, Bowie named it after one of its last songs (unlike most title tracks, which appear early on Bowie albums). The whole song is about someone who in his youth, “hid among the junk of wretched highs, [who] sped from Planet X to Planet Alpha struggling for reality.” Now, the narrator’s “sight is failing in this twilight” and “My death is more than just a sad song.”
These lyrics deserve a closer look. “Junk” is a term Bowie employed in the past to refer to drugs, this is not original, but think, “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junky.” That song, “Ashes to Ashes,” is an explicit reflection on the decline and descent into addiction of one of Bowie’s earliest alter egos. Especially considering the next line in “Reality” references space travel, the connection can be heard as a continuation of the theme. “My Death” was a song Bowie performed during the Ziggy era, so his reference to his death being more than a sad song is actually a reference to “My Death” taking on a less metaphorical reality. Later in the song, Bowie reflects, “I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong, now I’m back where I started from,” which also might be a reference to “Ashes to Ashes,” which contains the lyric, “I’ve never done good things, I’ve never done bad things.” There’s an off chance that Bowie was deliberately taking evoking “Ashes to Ashes” as kind of an in joke in (correct) anticipation of “Reality” becoming the latest of his albums to be dubbed the best since “Scary Monsters.”
In any case, decline was on Bowie’s mind. Sure enough, during the midst of an excellent tour, Bowie suffered health problems that nearly killed him and “Reality” wasn’t given its due. For a while we, or at least I, simply kept waiting for the next album. There was no moment when Bowie’s career came under retrospective review because he was still alive and there was always the chance he’d come out with a new album. By the time he actually did in 2013, with “The Next Day,” nobody was expecting it. That album, and then “Blackstar” were received and reviewed with their place in the Bowie story in mind, but “Reality” never got the same treatment. It should.
I often think about whether Bowie’s later albums would have made him famous in the first place, had they not come after his “greatest hits” period form the 1970s and 80s. Probably not. I liked “Reality” when it was released but came to like it much more over the years. Listeners probably wouldn’t have given it years without the premise that Bowie was something special. It isn’t necessarily the case that because it’s Bowie it must be good, but in this case it is.
My version comes with a bonus disc containing the delightful “Queen of all the Tarts (Overture)” as well as “Fly” and a 2002 recording of “Rebel Rebel.” This is a welcomed addition (and that these songs came on a separate disc is also welcomed, because they wouldn’t have fit into the mood of the main album). Foreign editions of the album also include a recording of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” (which I wish I had but don’t), “Love Missile F1 Eleven,” which I have heard and is excellent, and versions of “Rebel Never Gets Old,” which is a mix of “Rebel Rebel” and “Never Gets Old.” Hopefully future US editions contain these three songs as well as the three on the bonus disc that I have…and hey, such a bonus disc would actually be album-length.