David Bowie’s recent multichannel SACD release, ‘Reality’, poses the same challenge for a reviewer as many college professors must confront: How do you assess the mixed-bag term paper, the one with just enough high quality elements to flirt with that “A-”… but where the quality of the whole not only fails to exceed the sum of its parts, but may not even equal them.
I guess you give it a B.
The album reunites Bowie with producer/bass guitarist Tony Visconti, a collaboration that hearkens back to 1970’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. In many respects, some of the cuts on ‘Reality’ would have seemed equally at home on one of the Bowie albums of thirty plus years ago (I leave to you whether that’s a good or a bad thing, as I’m generally in the camp of they don’t make ‘em like they used to). The first cut, ‘New Killer Star’, would have been a “filler” track for an early Bowie album, and that’s just what it is on this one. It’s a mid-level rocker that you enjoy as you listen to it, and you’ll forget thereafter. If it’s not included in the company of some great cuts, it evaporates. It finds its virtue in its connection to the electrifying Bowie of old, but it also finds a certain tired quality in that same connection.
The title song, ‘Reality’, is not only the hardest-driving song on the album but probably the most deserving of finding its place among that same ensemble of shrewd glitter that so characterized this great artist – the ‘Moonage Daydreams, the ‘China Girls’. In an album that has its fill of retro-Bowie, this one probably pulls it off the best, without a sense that we’re just getting so much more recycling, as great as that cycle started.
Somewhat strangely, the disc finds its greatest musical and technical virtues in the offbeat cuts. It’s unlikely that any of these songs – ‘Never Get Old’, ‘The Loneliest Guy’, ‘Looking For Water’, and ‘Bring Me The Disco King’ – would ever crack any top forty, at any given time. While not necessarily the most pleasing melodies, there are a core group of cuts on this album that get taken seriously from the standpoint of fidelity, surround and, most importantly, music. While I’ve always recognized Bowie to be a gifted lyricist, his lyrics were often presented in the context of either wild cosmic imagination – lyrics meant to evoke the imagination more than the heart or soul – and it’s here that I see a departure for him, one which falls more squarely in the themes addressed for centuries by poets and novelists. Themes such as time and its interaction with the individual, and also the individual’s reaction to those thoughts.
Several songs are about denial. In the case of Never Get Old the denial is spirited, inspiring, to use the words of Dylan Thomas, someone who “rages” against “the dying of the light.” Bowie sings:
“Thinking about my soul but I don’t need a thing
Just the Ring of the Bell in the pure clean air
Now I’m running down the street of life
And I’m never gonna let you die
And I’m never ever gonna get old.”
The denial is of a less-spirited sort in the very next song, ‘The Loneliest Guy’. The lyrics here are the introspections of a man trying to convince himself of his “luckiness,” as opposed to his “loneliness.” In the first stanza:
“Streets damp and warm
Empty smell metal
Weeds between buildings
Pictures on my hard drive
But I’m the luckiest guy
Not the loneliest guy.”
It was Yeats who once described the stark difference between the soul that still “feels” young, yet is “sick with desire… and fastened to a dying animal” (this was an aging William Butler Yeats), and we find those types of themes in these Bowie lyrics – and we are talking, after all, of a “rock star” who happens to be a 57 year old man. In ‘Looking For Water’, the lyrics speak of the passing of time:
“I can’t breathe the air
I can’t raise the fight
Cause all that we’ve got left
Is a beat in the night
Looking for water.”
You’ll have to search for lyrics tantamount to suicide notes to match some of the darkness in the ‘Bring Me The Disco King’. He sings:
“Memories that flutter like bats out of hell
Stab you from the city spires
Life wasn’t worth the balance
Nor the crumpled paper it was written on
Don’t Let Me Know we’re invisible
Don’t Let Me Know we’re invisible
“Dead or alive, bring me the Disco King
Bring Me the Disco King.”
The lyrics are not all downbeat, and, even in ‘Disco King, the oft-repeated refrain of “dance, dance, dance through the fire” suggests a stoical acceptance of the existential question posed by the writer. The resolution, which suggests that “the Disco King” is somehow responsible for the dilemma seems, at least to me, not so much an indictment of a particular music, but a condemnation of an attitude perhaps most identified with a type of music. Of course, with Bowie, one might find the next cut to be ‘Let’s Dance. Nonetheless, there’s a dark vision penetrating the lyrics of ‘Disco King’ that hardly suggests a warmth or affection for the genre, and is clearly using it as a metaphor for something much larger than “disco.”
Other phrases stand out as well, for different reasons. There is perhaps some quasi-music industry/state of the art commentary being offered in ‘Fall Dog Bombs the Moon, where there is reference to “a devil in the marketplace… a devil in your bleeding face… these blackest of years… that have no sound… no shape, no depth, no underground” – one cannot help but consider the art and industry in which Bowie practices. In ‘Pablo Picasso’, Bowie shows how he still gravitates to the wickedly funny phrase and rhyme: “well some people try to pick up girls, they get called assholes… this never happened to Pablo Picasso.” Perhaps in the same vein that poetry students have never been able to find a word to rhyme with “orange” (only coming up with off rhymes like “range,” or “gorge”), the trick gets turned in a different way, with a song that is nothing short of hilarious (“well the girls would turn the color of a juicy avocado… when he would drive down their street in his El Dorado”). While the lyrics appear on the disc cover information to be those of Bowie’s, they are actually from a song by Jonathan Richman.
The fidelity of the SACD might fairly be called a touchy subject. It is of good quality, clearly a cut above Redbook CD, but not by much, which is something of a disappointment for a Columbia/Sony production of 2003, where there is no excuse of old master tapes, from which only so much high-resolution can be squeezed. It does not meet the fidelity of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ (whose age could have been used as an excuse), and isn’t even near the recent (and superb) ‘Motown’ SACD release by Michael McDonald. In fairness, the fidelity is mostly lacking on those cuts where the instrumentation is dominated by rhythm electric guitars, and may just be harder to detect. In the more subdued songs, where there is piano, acoustic guitar, and mandolin (or what sounds to be a mandolin), the fidelity is of high quality. It may just depend on the raw material of the music, but, overall, this is not a disc that the savvy retailer will use to show off the resplendent qualities of high-resolution audio.
The surround mix is adequate at best. The center channel is used exclusively and discretely for the lead vocals of Bowie, occasionally including a dub of Bowie’s voice in harmony with himself. Beyond that, the left and right main speakers are generally just big brothers to what the surrounds are pumping out. There are occasional variations on this theme and, frankly, the variations suggest that if the surrounds had been given their own identity more frequently, the mix would have been that much better.
Examples of the generally dull surround mix would be ‘New Killer Star’, ‘Pablo Picasso’, and even the title cut, ‘Reality’. While the surrounds are “aggressive” in these and all other songs on the album, they simply aren’t doing anything much differently than the front main speakers. Perhaps there’s really no other choice to have been made in that respect, but that doesn’t change the impression with which the listener is left.
The surround mix has its moments, however. In ‘She’ll Drive The Big Car’, the chorus includes female vocals that are offered in counterpoint to Bowie’s vocals from the front, and this offers a rewarding surround experience. That particular cut is also presented in stages, first acoustic, and then dynamically stepped up to electric, with the surrounds adding a great presence in that transition. Violins are part of the orchestral mix, again in counterpoint to what’s already happened from the front soundstage.
Perhaps the highlight of the surround presentation is in the George Harrison song, ‘Try Some, Buy Some’. Knowing that the song was written by the late Beatle, it’s easy to read into it the type of introspection we often find in Harrsison’s lyrics which also portends of an “answer,” or some peaceful resolution reached by the lyricist. The song itself starts as a slightly dissonant ballad marked by simple chord progressions of piano and guitar. However, as the song builds to a climax, with the chorus of “won’t you try some, baby won’t you buy some,” joined by mandolins and a more emphatic deep bass, the dynamics make their way into the surrounds, filling the room nicely; the song has progressed from a slightly somber ballad in the front soundstage to music that has morphed into a bona-fide surround experience.
Throughout the disc, the low bass is tightly tailored to the music, but it lacks the emphasis that usually draws favorable commentary. This too need not be a pejorative, as it is after all the musician’s prerogative (and since the bass player, Tony Visconti, was one of those responsible for the surround mix, it is even more difficult to argue that the bass “should” have carried a greater punch…). But I can only judge by what I hear: The low bass in ‘Reality’, for example, carries real punch without boominess or dominance, and I would have liked to have heard that more often on other cuts on the album. My thoughts again stray to my hypothetical retailer: He leaves ‘Reality’ on the shelf when demonstrating to a prospective customer the possibilities often added by the LFE channel in a 5.1 mix.
And thus leads to my mixed bag conclusion because this is, after all, new music by Bowie on multichannel SACD. All of the attributes have their moments… the surround mix, the high-resolution fidelity, the music itself – but they are peppered amongst some ordinary trappings as well. Despite those obvious virtues, there is enough of the unremarkable to anchor it as a good quality, albeit second-tier, contribution to the tortoise pace that attends the construction of a high quality, high-resolution library.
The disc is a hybrid SACD, meaning it will play on SACD players, as well as conventional CD players. There is a stand-alone CD version (released in September 2003, a month before the SACD) and a special ‘Limited Edition’ CD, so don’t get them muddled when ordering. The two-channel SACD layer offers identical resolution to the 5.1 version, and, because of the generally undistinguished surround mix, is not much of a difference from the multichannel version, although the several cuts that do benefit from the surround mix make this my preferred listening mode. The Redbook CD version is of good quality, and only a subtle step below the two-channel SACD version.
The disc clearly has enough virtues to be recommended, but expectations should be appropriately braced. This now marks the fifth SACD offering by Bowie – ‘Ziggy’, ‘Heathen’, ‘Scary Monsters’, ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Reality’ – and, one hopes, the mere stature of David Bowie will lead to offerings by others. Bowie has always been a trendsetter, so let’s hope he’s got enough glitter dust remaining to leave a trail that others follow.