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.
Every fan, then, has his or her own custom David Bowie, and there are as many Bowies as there are fans.
In fact I think that anyone who says they love everything David did is by definition a casual fan. Any serious fan has made decisions about what they could do without. If you like everything equally, you’re not paying attention.
One last train of thought before I wrap this up: Just today I realized that Bowie was right around the age I am now when he wrote “Never Get Old” — the age, he said, when you can no longer maintain even the delusion of being young. It was inspired, he said, by
The image of a petulant rock singer sitting in a half-darkened room saying, “I’m not gonna get old.” I thought it was a funny image and I had to write it before someone else my age did.
So on the one hand, “NGO” is self-aware and ironic; and on the other hand, it… isn’t. To hear David shouting over those electric guitars in the chorus is to hear a man saying, as Chris O’Leary puts it, “Fuck you: I am the aging letch you hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Like “Heroes,” it’s both ironic and anthemic. How can he do both? How can he have his cake and eat it too? Because he’s David Fucking Bowie, that’s why.1
There was a time when I used to look askance at aging rock stars. (Sometimes I still do — it’s a question of style, really.) But as I get older I realize — once the rock’n’roll is in you, it’s in there for good. It never goes away and why should it? What’s wrong with a lust for life? Who’s going to tell Jagger and Richards, or Daltrey and Townshend, or Paul and Ringo, that it’s time to hang it up? I hope they all croak onstage, giving the Reaper the middle finger.
Dignity is overrated anyway.