Stan Deely on 12 Bowie Albums in 12 Months – Reality
Bowie is revitalised after Heathen and its shortish promo style tour. His new contract following the Toy debacle says he can release what he wants when he wants, so is keen to record another album. Recorded in day shifts near his home in New York. In anticipation of touring again, the songs are written to be played live. Similar themes to the last album, age-ing, musings on failure, religion and war that may or may not be autobiographical.
The cover’s a bit shite. An anime style Bowie. Apparently on the inner sleeve we have a photo of the then Bowie in the same pose. So whilst a ‘clever’ idea punning on the album title it leaves us with an album cover that seems cheap and gimmicky and out of place when placed next to all the others.
NEW KILLER STAR
A modern rock chugger. Very Pixies-esque. Even a bit Song 2. No singles were released from the album but this one came out as a DVD single. Catchy, propulsive verse. Soaring chorus. It’s a confident enough opener but leaves me a bit cold feeling it a bit formulaic. Maybe I don’t need any more ‘good’ Bowie in my life? Coming to the albums when they are released was probably more exciting than knowing there’ll be another instalment along next month.
Like Heathen, the second track is a cover. Jonathan Richman’s one chord dirge anthem Pablo Picasso off, what has at times been my favourite album of all time, The Modern Lovers. Previously covered by John Cale, the Pop Group, Jeffery Lewis and some others. Bowie plays about with it effectively re-writing it as a different song. The band space rock it with additional refrains, spidery lead guitar, jazzy breakdown. I can’t really decide whether it’s any good or not. Any opinions?
NEVER GET OLD
A single in some territories. The melody of the verse takes me back to Never Let Me Down era. Like New Kiler Star it has a groove, in fact it is very catchy. Not sure what he’s trying to say here. He gives it some in the vocal department and it sounds like he means it, whatever it is. I imagine it would work live and I am minded to listen to some of the live versions of this album’s songs.
THE LONELIEST GUY
A change of pace. A piano led ballad. The great Mike Garson who is, in my opinion, the star of this and other latter day Bowie albums. A bit Aladdin Sane. Also a bit Scooby Doo with eerie piano, strings. Paints a dystopian picture and the strings also remind me a bit of the Diamond Dogs ballads. No percussion on this one. He sings that he is “The luckiest guy not the loneliest guy” as If he doesn’t believe it. l think he gets away with it but it might be a bit Eurovision for some tastes. At this stage I am thinking this album would stand up to, if not the Dinner Party test then at least the ‘Friends round for a drink and a natter’ test.
LOOKING FOR WATER
Back to rock. A driving Motown four to the floor stomping beat. Wiggy guitars recalling Reeves Gabrel. Bowie does a slightly hysterical desperate sounding vocal. Chorus echoes Bowie. Stomp stomp. Beat beat. Almost over before it starts. Not much there. I try to keep away from too many reviews, Wikipedia etc as I want to offer my opinion relatively uninfluenced but I dd come across a Bowie quote whilst recording saying something like “We laid down 16 songs and 8 of them I am very excited about” I can’t imagine that this would have been one of them. Seems like filler to me – and I don’t think he ever really did much of that.
SHE’LL DRIVE THE BIG CAR
A bit different. Starts with harmonica and an opening verse that has got a Scary Monsters feel. The chorus recalls ‘Shout’ with some call and response. I quite like this especially the harmonica, if that’s what it is. One of the most interesting pieces in an album that is, at times, a little too meat and potatoes or “thrusting” as Bowie described it at the time.
A lightweightish pop tune. Song by Bowie in the slightly fey singer songwriter voice he used on the Space Oddity and Man Who Sold the World albums. I am liking the dialled down, more reflective, songs on the album more than the upbeat stuff.
So, the consensus on Bowie from yourselves is that it’s good he continued with music and didn’t give up to become a painter, entrepreneur, flaneur, editor for Faber, or whatever else he could have done but at this stage in the game my observations is that the tunes are okay but he doesn’t really have a lot to say lyrically. Maybe he should have just done instrumentals or wordless vocals a la Warszawa.
FALL DOG BOMBS THE MOON
In some ways I think Scary Monsters is his pivotal album setting the template for a lot of his future work and this is assembled from the same components. Post punk avant pop presentation, treated guitar that is rock without rock cliches, and Bowie doing a low mumble, slightly mockney talk singing thing. Possibly about the latest middle eastern war. He sings it with melancholic resignation. Possibly more than the sum of its parts.
TRY SOME BUY SOME
The second cover. Written by George Harrison for Ronnie Spector. George, to me, is the master of the memorable slightly wonky half tune, as is the solo Joe Strummer, Are they in minor keys, using diminished 7ths or something. Any musos out there care to inform me what I’m hearing. This one is more faithful than Pablo Picasso. A bit of a plodder in a good way, I’m hearing nods to ‘I Want You She’s So Heavy. It’s a bit late 1960’s orchestral Beatles with a good vocal from Bowie and I reckon it works well.
A rave up. The Yardbirds play Rebel Rebel. Definitely designed to be played loud and in concert but really not much of a song here. Live versions make even clearer its debt to Rebel Rebel. Could be seen as a kind of sequel/answer song.
BRING ME THE DISCO KING
This is different. Shuffle drum beat, Mike Garson gets to sprinkle his fairy dust on what sounds a little 1960’s film noir soundtrack. Jazz, baby, jazz. It seems to me that he’s been itching to do something jazzy for most of his career but hasn’t previously had the nerve to go there. It feels more weighty than the other tracks. Another ‘I’m getting older’ musing. Slightly ruined by the vocal refrain “Dance dance dance to the fire” which reminds me too much of Duran Duran’s ‘View to a Kill’ Events at the end of the Reality tour – a heart attack at the age of 57 (Yipes younger than I am now!) led to a decade of lying low until his miracle resurrection on a cold January morning in 2012. This song is a suitable curtain closer for what, during his lay off, many assumed was his final artistic statement.
Sometimes his albums work in twos – a experimental leap forward with a change in songwriting style followed by slightly more conservative consolidation, for instance Hunky Dory to Ziggy Stardust, Low and Heroes, Outside to Earthling and this could in some ways be seen as Heathen part 2 – same producer, similar themes and some of the same players.
For me its a solid if slightly disappointing addition to the catalogue. Some good stuff but a bit uneven and unsatisfying in the long run. Apart from Bring Me The Disco King I can’t really pick out anything else of great note, the covers work quite well, I suppose. Perhaps others disagree. Any love for this album? Anyone see the tour? I