Heathen vs. Reality: Bonus Tracks

The CD of Reality came with three bonus tracks, two of which are as good as or better than most of the songs on the official album. “Fly,” in particular, is a banger:

In it Bowie is playing (as he did on hours…) an age-appropriate character: an anxious suburban dad who cries in his car and is quietly freaking out about what his kids are up to.

The kids have got a gig at an all-night rave
They’re looking pretty tough but I still want to say,
“Do you really have to go?”

But it’s also (ambiguously) uplifting: This guy hasn’t completely given up hope; he’s still looking forward to the weekend, and when he closes his eyes he can see a better world — or see this world from a distance, where he can get a little bit of peace. It’s a life of noisy desperation but it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.


Heathen vs. Reality, Part 3

Subtracting the cover versions and opening/closing tracks leaves us with 7 songs each for Heathen and Reality.

On Reality, the split is pretty stark. Four of the songs — “Looking for Water,” “She’ll Drive the Big Car,” “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” and the title track — I’d call disposable. They’re not embarrassing or grating like the worst of the Eighties or Tin Machine, just drab and uninspired. The other three — “Never Get Old,” “The Loneliest Guy,” and “Days,” are top-drawer. (There are also two excellent CD bonus tracks that probably should have been on the album proper.)

In contrast, all the Heathen songs fall into the good-to-very-good category. None cries out for deletion, nor would any of them make my list of, say, top 100 Bowie songs. So on the whole, I’d say that Heathen has more good songs, but Reality has more great ones. This is of course subjective and I have to admit that in the relistening Heathen has grown in my estimation, such that I’d really have a hard time picking a favorite between the two albums.

Fortunately I don’t have to. Here’s a hybrid that, in my mind at least, combines the best of both. (Pick your platform of choice.)

Bowie was the first artist I can think of to explicitly give us permission to decide which parts of his oeuvre to hold onto and which to discard. He did this by modeling it for us — he was, in one way of looking at it, the biggest Bowie fan in the world, and was constantly reevaluating his own work. I think he believed in everything he did — even Never Let Me Down — at the time of release; but he would back away from things very quickly sometimes. Then later he would circle back and change his mind again, reincorporating something he had previously rejected.


Heathen vs. Reality, Part 2

We all know that the two most important songs on an album are the first and the last. My theory is that this is why Sgt. Pepper is so overrated — it starts strong and finishes strong, so you tend to overlook the lesser moments in between.

David Bowie knew it too, which is why he recorded the opening and closing songs of Heathen first. “I wanted to make sure that the bookends were firmly in place before I got on with the rest of the album,” he said. I don’t know if a similar method was used for Reality, but it seems likely.

With that in mind, let’s look at the first and last songs of each.

First Songs

The opener of Heathen, “Sunday,” ranks very high among the mature Bowie’s compositions. For most of its length it goes along at a stately pace, with lush vocals and loads of sonic detail including skittery percussion that recalls Earthling but works perfectly in this context. Listening to it right now, “majestic” is the word I’d use. That would have been enough; but then a minute from the end, the bass and live drums kick in and the song takes off for the stars.


Heathen vs. Reality, Part 1

Friend of the Blog Knox Bronson and I have had a running argument for… I guess… 20 years now over the relative merits of these two albums, which for a long time looked like they would be David Bowie’s last. (There is a similar argument to be had over the actual final albums.) I’ve always favored Reality, which I think is less consistent but has higher highs; Knox prefers Heathen, which he ranks #1 among post-Scary Monsters Bowies.

The time has come to consider the subject further. Not that I intend to settle it, exactly — it is subjective, after all; my motto is de gustibus non est disputandum. But by exploring further I hope that, if we continue to disagree, we will at least disagree on a higher level and about more important things.

Let’s begin by looking at….

The Album Covers

This is an easy one, as the cover of Reality is one of the worst in Bowie’s catalog:


R.I.P. Alan Arkin

Last Thursday brought sad news of the death of Alan Arkin, who had about as full a life as a person in show business can have — acting, writing, and directing, and having kids who acted, wrote, and directed, while always coming across as a mensch.

He did an awful lot, including that memorable role in The In-Laws. (Highlight: Arkin dodges bullets as Peter Falk yells “Serpentine, Shel, serpentine!”) But my personal favorite is a movie called Simon, which was directed in 1980 by Woody Allen associate Marshall Brickman. Simon was not a hit at the time — in fact I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who saw it in a movie theater. But it got a second life on cable, where some of us kids who watched way too much TV ran across it and had our tiny minds blown.

Simon is a work of genius and Arkin is brilliant in it as a philosophy professor who is convinced by a sinister cabal of scientists that he’s from another planet. Bonus, it is like a top-level Woody Allen movie that Woody himself was not involved in, so we don’t have that to worry about. (I don’t know if Marshall Brickman ever adopted any kids, and I don’t want to know.)

By the grace of YouTube, Simon is currently available for home viewing free of charge. If I were you, I’d watch it tonight before that can change.