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.

“New Killer Star,” on the other hand, is a flat-out rocker, though deliberate rather than frantic in its attack. I like it a lot and it sounds great turned up to 11. But I can’t even begin to think about arguing that it’s as good as “Sunday.”

Advantage: Heathen

Last Songs

Heathen’s title track and closer, subtitled “The Rays,” is one that many Bowie fans rate highly (KB says it’s the best song on the album), but honestly it doesn’t do much for me; it’s too amorphous and somehow never quite sticks in my head. I remember an elegiac atmosphere and that’s about all. Possibly this marks me as a Philistine, and if so, so be it.1

“Bring Me the Disco King,” meanwhile, has an unforgettable hook, though in classic Bowie fashion it’s tucked into an almost eight-minute-long epic that walks the fine line between sublime and ridiculous — quite successfully, if you ask me. Apparently David had tried to record it many times over the years in many different styles before finally arriving at this minimalist version with just a drum loop, Mike Garson’s piano, and the vocal. It’s perfect.

For a long time “Disco King” was the last song on the last Bowie album (though confusingly followed by bonus tracks on the CD), and seemed like not a bad way at all to go out.

Advantage: Reality

So far, then, it’s a wash. We’ll get into the real nitty gritty next time.