What does David Bowie know about the disappointments and frustrations of a mundane life? Probably not much, having escaped from it long ago, but he can empathize. This may a standout from Reality, which I’ve always thought was a very strong album overall. It’s a return to the plastic soul sound he perfected so well in his Young Americans days. It certainly tunnel-visions it back to the days of station wagons with faux-wood paneling on the outside and Soul Train on television. And it imagines the nagging resentment of a life lived on the wrong side of the Hudson River, a life of suburban dreams grown shabby and the paths to escape growing fewer over the years and the repetition of daily life becoming the only experience. That’s a life we all either end up living, or narrowly escape from.
David Bowie looks at the abstract concept of reality. “Things that [they] regarded as truths seem to have just melted away, and it’s almost as if we’re thinking post-philosophically now. There’s nothing to rely on any more.” he said in 2003. Well, there’s nothing more post-philosophic than talking about how reality has become sless real, and this is coming from a man who founded his own internet service. Reality, in the broad scheme of things, is just as nebulous and slippery as it ever was, and the idea that technological and societal changes have altered it in any substantial way is a philosophical discussion as old as time. Fortunately for fans who don’t necessarily want to have that discussion, Bowie’s Reality album wasn’t actually about philosophy. It was more about the artist’s own reality, and the reality of real people feeling lost and small in the world. In this case, the artist looks back at himself as a young man, and sees a cosmic joke. What happened and why? He’s not sure, but all he can do is look back and laugh.
David Bowie says this song contains some opaque political reference, but I can’t hear it. I hear opaque political references where none are intended, but I don’t hear one here. Perhaps there’s something to be found in the visual accompaniment, but I don’t see that either besides a possible point about the mechanized and dehumanized state of American life. All I can hear is that he’s talking about the stars again, in his never-ending fascination with the skies. The star references all tie together and it feels like Bowie is pulling the strings tighter and tighter. There’s no relevance to any earthly particulars, no political message, nothing topical. It’s the stars, always, the stars.
This is where David Bowie left us in 2003. A working musician who toured, gave interviews and appeared at public events. We didn’t read as much into everything he did; we didn’t know he would disappear for a full decade. We had no idea he could be so cruel like that. It took ten years for him to come back with The Next Day, the main concept of which appeared to be ‘hey, I’m still David Bowie and I do what I want.’ By now I’m sure you’ve all heard that the Blackstar album is almost upon us, and the video for that single is out. In it, among many cryptic references, we finally find out what became of Major Tom (it wasn’t anything good.) Which in turn leads me to suspect that in the near future, all the rest of the mythology is really going to come into focus. Bowie’s Earthly carapace can’t last much longer, so he needs to busy himself putting together the final pieces of the puzzle. So we followers can have a solid foundation in place for the future ascension of our faith and whatnot. In short, we’re reading very deeply for clues, on both old and fresh material. This is one is fairly self explanatory, as far as it goes; David Bowie never gets old.