Where have you gone, Thin White Duke? Where is that savoir faire, that cool elegance and total command of craft that made you one of rock’s most compelling figures all those years ago? There is trace evidence of David Bowie’s former self on his new CD, Reality, but certainly not enough to warrant a hearty ”hip, hip, hooray!” from long-suffering loyalists who wait in vain for Bowie to throw down with an album that’s as worthy as his brilliant work of the ’70s.
”Reality”’s core flaw is the same one that has marred Bowie’s work since 1993’s ”Black Tie White Noise”: studio-slick production that drowns even the best musical ideas in digitally processed canola oil. Bowie simply can’t stop tinkering with his arrangements, piling on so many synthesized strings, chiming guitars, and reverb-heavy bass lines that they begin to take on the awful sheen of remedial ’80s pop. Surprising, then, to find that ”Reality” was coproduced by Tony Visconti, the man in the control booth during the making of great Bowie records like ”Low” and ”Heroes.” If any musical icon could benefit from the indie-rock analog treatment, it’s Bowie (paging Steve Albini…).
The writing on ”Reality” is an improvement over Bowie’s previous few albums — less banal, more heartfelt. A handful of the songs seem to address post-9/11 emotional and spiritual dislocation. ”I lost God in a New York minute/I don’t know about you but my heart’s not in it,” Bowie sings on ”Looking for Water.” On ”New Killer Star,” he witnesses a ”great white scar over Battery Park” and tries to find some solace in ”the stars in your eyes.” But it’s not until the last track that Bowie proves he’s still capable of summoning some of the eerie drama of yore. An after-hours elegy for club crawlers, ”Bring Me the Disco King” slinks seductively to pianist Mike Garson’s tinkling angularities and a brushed snare, and features Bowie at his crooning, brooding best. Ground control to Major Tom: Ditch the new reality and go back to the old school.