As a young subversive, David Bowie played with Sixties verities about gender, identity and rock & roll itself, insisting that truth was nothing but another mask. Now fifty-six and a revered figure himself, he’s searching for some version of truth — or, as this album title puts it, Reality — and it turns out he was right the first time. To his mixed dismay and amusement, meaning comes and goes. “I still don’t get the wherefores and the whys,” he sings over the roaring guitars of the title track. “I look for sense, but I get next to nothing/Hoo, boy, welcome to reality.”
And Reality turns out to be an intriguing place. As on last year’s Heathen, Bowie ponders life after 9/11 — he lives about a mile from Ground Zero — and his role in a world that has trumped all his apocalyptic fantasies. Part of that role, at least, is rocking hard. With co-producer Tony Visconti, Bowie toughens up his sound, sawing at the edges of Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” and, on “New Killer Star,” reclaiming the insinuating guitar propulsion he’d loaned to Lou Reed when he produced Transformer. On a quieter note, his version of George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some” becomes a waltzing memorial to a fellow spiritual searcher. Reality closes with “Bring Me the Disco King,” a surreal ballad that runs close to eight minutes. It’s another of Bowie’s ambivalent farewells to the era in which he wreaked such havoc “in the stiff, bad clubs/Killing time in the Seventies.” The difference is he now knows that time is killing him, and all of us, and that the Disco King, that master of revels who promised eternal life on the dance floor, is nowhere to be found.