September 18, 2003

David Bowie: The Bowie Simulacrum

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Throughout David Bowie’s storied career and many identities, there has been one constant. Each God, alien, and beautiful freak has been set apart from everyone else on the planet. Bowie once alternately exalted and decried this alienated star status, but on his latest effort, Reality, the homo superior sounds a lot like a guilty survivor. Reality finds Bowie looking for some kind of truth strong enough to outlast his latest costume and finding only compromised statements and ambiguities. This confusion gives birth to some marvelous tracks, with the songs always somehow musically or lyrically at odds with themselves.

The opening track, “New Killer Star,” stars off with the rhythm section vamping Kurt Weil-style over art rock borrowed guitar distortion. The first vocals are apathetic chanting: “I never said I’m ready/ I’m ready/ I never said I’m better/ I’m better than you,” which Bowie quickly follows into his midrange, sneering, shrieking tenor as he begins to evoke a blasted urban shell: “all the corners on the buildings.” That delivery continues throughout the verses, unexpectedly resolving into one sweetly harmonious phrase: “stars in your eyes.” The last minute is nothing short of apocalyptic with the distress call “ready, set, go,” jolting against the confidence of the increasingly scary mantra “I’ve got a better way.” The entire song is more than vaguely unsettling and throws you off-balance with frayed nerves into the next song, “Pablo Picasso.” A melodic minor scale, which gives the song a vaguely Eastern feel, leads into a vintage Bowie Gregorian chant, until he breaks off and spits the lyrics in true headbanger style against a fretful industrial riff. There’s one moment where the guitar breaks free of whatever keyboards and distortion it’s buried in and soars above the arrangement, keeping the whole thing from flying off into repetitive experimentation. The acoustic guitar sounds at home among all the hard modern electronic sounds.

Most of the songs fit into the mold set by the strong opener. With “Never Get Old,” Bowie uses his coyest voice to express the internal panic and frenzy of a mid-life crisis, while on “Looking For Water” he draws on bright chimes of keyboard, the tight, clean snap of the drum, and pleasingly jagged incision of guitar to make the search sound genuinely urgent. Bowie draws fine psychological portraits on almost every track by mismatching words and music to create unexpected moods.

The album has one truly awful mistake and three fantastic highlights. “The Loneliest Guy” is one dimensional cardboard emotion, using ethereal vocals with an overdone vibrato and deliberative piano chords to communicate interior desolation. Bowie’s self-reflection here approaches self-pity, and irritatingly non-self dramatizing pity at that. It’s the only boring track on the album.

The title track and two others more than make up for this failure. “Reality” is raucous and has a genius opening line: “tragic youth was looking young and sexy.” Seems the only way Bowie can find reality is to turn up the volume and depend on good old fashioned bent note guitar. Here we get the full range of his astonishing vocal ability, from pure falsetto to shout-along chorus. The percussion section suddenly morphs into a garage band. The message? In the search for the meaning of life: don’t forget to throw a great party. “She’ll Dive the Big Car” sets that theme to music. The only unambiguously happy song on the album, it is more closely related to Bowie’s sound circa “Sound and Vision.” Two unusual instruments show up here, a harmonica and a Stylophone (used on several earlier hits, including Heathen’s “Slip Away”). Opening with a dangerous dance beat and that easy seduction of overdubbed vocals, it builds into a wall of voices that ground the song. The occasional funk of the guitar and bass graft a tiny bit of “Fame” into a far more melodic construction. If this were another two minutes long, I would be a happy camper.

The closer, “Bring Me the Disco King,” is in a league of its own. Bowie takes the same approach as he did to his cover of “Wild is the Wind” with jazz piano and drums vaguely reminiscent of Ellington. He sounds a lot more like a torch singer than a disco king. The vocals and lyrics, for once, are in the foreground, and they’re vintage Bowie paranoia: “Don’t let me know we’re invisible.” Reporting from the wreckage of the 20th century and the ashes of his various exploits and personae, Bowie sings dispatches from the very end of time distilling life down to continued existence: “Breathe through the years.” If the disco king were ever delivered, it wouldn’t make any difference, except that Bowie would then have someone to make his only option, to “dance through the fire,” appear more of a pleasure and less of a grim necessity.

Archived article by Erica Stein