Detailed Pedia

Reality (David Bowie album)

David Bowie - Reality.jpg
Studio album by
Released15 September 2003 (2003-09-15)
RecordedJanuary–May 2003
StudioLooking Glass (New York City)
David Bowie chronology
Best of Bowie
Club Bowie
Singles from Reality
  1. "New Killer Star"
    Released: 29 September 2003 (DVD only)
  2. "Never Get Old"
    Released: March 2004 (Japan)

Reality is the 24th studio album by English musician David Bowie, originally released in Europe on 15 September 2003, and the following day in America. It was the artist's second release through his ISO Records label, in conjunction with Columbia Records. Co-produced by Bowie and longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, it was recorded between January and May 2003 at Looking Glass Studios in New York City. Having become re-energised to tour again following the Heathen Tour, Bowie envisioned Reality as a set of songs that could be played live. As such, most of the musicians consisted of Bowie's then-touring band.

A mostly straightforward rock album with a more direct sound compared to its predecessor Heathen (2002), Reality contains covers of the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso" and George Harrison's "Try Some, Buy Some". One of the tracks, "Bring Me the Disco King", was originally written in 1992 and attempted for two other albums before finally appearing on Reality. One of the album's primary themes concerns reflections on the ageing process, while other songs focus on despaired and diminished characters. The cover artwork depicts Bowie as an anime-style character that reflected the idea that reality had become an abstract concept.

Released under a variety of CD formats, Reality charted in numerous countries, peaking at number three in the United Kingdom. It failed to outperform Heathen in the United States, but nevertheless peaked at number 29. The album was not supported through conventional single releases, although "New Killer Star" and "Never Get Old" appeared in some countries. Reality received largely positive reviews from music critics on release, with many highlighting the music, lyrics, vocal performances and the growing maturity in Bowie's songwriting.

Bowie supported the album on the worldwide A Reality Tour throughout 2003 and 2004, his biggest tour up to that point and his final concert tour. It ended prematurely in June 2004 after Bowie was hospitalised for a blocked artery. Afterwards, Bowie largely retreated from public life and did not release another studio album until The Next Day in 2013, making Reality his last album of original material for ten years. His biographers have given Reality mixed to positive assessments.

Recording and production


David Bowie began writing songs immediately after the Heathen Tour ended in October 2002. His new distribution deal with Columbia Records gave him the freedom to record as quickly or as slowly as possible, so he was eager to return to the studio quickly. Bowie elected to bring back Tony Visconti to co-produce the new album after the pair's successful renewed partnership with Heathen (2002). Bowie knew he wanted the producer back for a follow-up:

We made Heathen our kind of debut reunion album. The circumstances, the environment, everything about it was just perfect for us to find out if we still had a chemistry that was really effective. And it worked out. It was perfect, not a step out of place, as though we had just come from the previous album into this one. It was quite stunningly comfortable to work with each other again.

Bowie and Visconti began initial ideas for the new album in November 2002. The success of the Heathen Tour rejuvenated Bowie's desire to play live, so the two fashioned the new album with the goal for the songs to be played live. The songwriting process itself was varied. Some tracks, such as "She'll Drive the Big Car", were written more conventionally while others, such as "Looking for Water", were fashioned using a series of loops over a melody. The length of time to write the songs also varied. "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" was written in only 30 minutes, while "Bring Me the Disco King" was written in 1992 and originally intended to appear on Black Tie White Noise (1993). It was re-recorded for potential release on Earthling and finally completed for Reality. One of the first songs tracked was "Reality", which would become the title of the new album.


A grey-haired man with glasses and a black shirt standing in front of a microphone
Producer Tony Visconti (pictured in 2007) returned to produce Reality following Heathen.

Recording for Reality took place at Looking Glass Studios in New York City, where Earthling (1997) and Hours (1999) were recorded. Whereas the mountainous Allaire Studios influenced the recording for Heathen, the urban New York City served as an influence on the new material. The sessions commenced in early January 2003. Bowie opted to use Looking Glass's smaller Studio B, which Visconti was renting out on a semi-permanent basis, rather than the more spacious Studio A in order to have, in Visconti's words, a "real tight New York sound". The studio was within close distance to Bowie's New York apartment, and his familiarity with the studio corresponded to relatively easy-going eight-hour working days, which ran five days a week.

The personnel for the record mostly consisted of Bowie's then-touring band: Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard on guitar, Mark Plati on guitar and bass, Mike Garson on piano, and Sterling Campbell on drums; live bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and multi-instrumentalist Catherine Russell only contributed backing vocals. overdubs were provided by Heathen guitarist David Torn, who mainly provided "atmospheres", as well as lead on "New Killer Star"; drummer Matt Chamberlain, who played on "Bring Me the Disco King" and "Fly"; and longtime Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, who played on "Fly".

Bowie arrived with four to five home demos he had prepared, although these were basic; he told Sound on Sound: "I don't want my home to be taken over by the recording process. I'm very wary of that. I really saved everything for working over at Looking Glass." Bowie, Visconti and assistant engineer Mario J. McNulty initially worked on demos before the entire band arrived. Visconti stated that many of these demo parts ended up in the final mixes: "I always record things carefully in the first place, because I know we're not going to redo them, and so a lot of the demo parts ended up on the final version." As a result, Visconti's bass playing appeared in the final mixes of tracks such as "New Killer Star", "The Loneliest Guy", "Days" and "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon". McNulty's percussion on "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" was also retained for the final mix.

Similar to Heathen, Bowie played many instruments himself, including guitar, saxophone, Stylophone and keyboards, although Garson played prominently on "The Loneliest Guy" and "Bring Me the Disco King". One of Bowie's synthesisers was a Korg Trinity, while one of his guitars was a recently-purchased and restored white 1956 Supro Dual Tone. Visconti described the ending result as a guitar that "was never meant to sound so good". Like previous releases, bass, percussion and rhythm guitar parts were recorded live first, followed by vocals and overdubs; Bowie, Plati and Campbell primarily played to click tracks from the demos. According to biographer Chris O'Leary, the backing tracks were recorded from January and February, with overdubs tracked from March to May. Visconti also brought back an old-fashioned 16-track analogue method of recording previously used on Heathen. Eight tracks were yielded after the initial eight-day session. Bowie revealed on his website in April that he had written 16 tracks, eight of which he was "mad for".

After guitar overdubs were completed, Bowie and Visconti realised the drum tracks lacked the ambience and impact of Heathen's, which they contributed to the studio. As such, the two travelled to Allaire and played the tracks back through the speakers, thereby capturing the ambience found on Heathen. As a result, the drum ambience is found sporadically throughout Reality, particularly on the cover of the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso" and "Looking for Water". Bowie recorded three separate vocal tracks for each track – one after the rhythm tracks were completed, another midway through the sessions, and the final during mixing. Although most tracks featured a single vocal take, some were stitched together from different ones. Bowie's vocals had also improved greatly having recently quit smoking; as such, his voice regained, according to Visconti, "at least five semitones". The sessions concluded in late May 2003.


Mixing for Reality also took place at Looking Glass. Bowie mostly entrusted Visconti to the mixing as he longer found a desire to contribute. Although he intended to use Studio A, Visconti instead used Studio B as both he and Bowie were satisfied with the latter's mixing boards. Similar to Heathen, Visconti created both a standard stereo and 5.1 mix for release on SACD formats, which was made at Studio A. Of the 5.1 mix, Visconti said:

My approach to 5.1 is to be involved, to have instruments wrapped around you rather than in front of you. Rather than putting you in the audience seat I actually put you in the band, and so that's what I did with Reality. Also, I put a slap-back on the vocal in the rear speakers to again create space.

Music and lyrics

Compared to its predecessor Heathen, the music on Reality is mostly straightforward rock and pop rock, which was the result of Bowie's desire to create a set of songs that could be played live. Jeff Giles of Ultimate Classic Rock acknowledged it as containing a "more direct, aggressive sound" compared to Heathen. Consisting of mostly original compositions, the album includes two cover songs: the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso" and George Harrison's "Try Some, Buy Some". Both were originally slated for Bowie's never-recorded Pin Ups 2 album, a planned follow-up to his 1973 collection of cover versions Pin Ups. Regarding the two tracks' placement on Reality, author James E. Perone writes that they match the album's autobiographical tones compared to other covers Bowie made throughout his career, which were more often chosen for similar musical styles. Other covers recorded during the sessions included the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" and Sigue Sigue Sputnik's "Love Missile F1-11". Biographer Nicholas Pegg calls Bowie's rendition of "Waterloo Sunset" "a faithful, affectionate cover of an eternally wonderful song". On the lyrics, Perone states that the album's principle sub-theme is that of "how one grapples with the aging process". O'Leary draws comparisons to The Man Who Sold the World (1970), in that its subjects are "extreme", from a "gluttonous rock star vampire" to various diminished figures.


vJonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers in 2009
George Harrison in 1987
Reality contains cover versions of "Pablo Picasso" and "Try Some, Buy Some", written by Jonathan Richman (left, in 2009) and George Harrison (right, in 1987), respectively.

As the opening track, "New Killer Star" recalls the "gentle beginnings" of Heathen before erupting into a groove. Pegg compares its guitar style to Bowie's own Diamond Dogs (1974) and Never Let Me Down (1987), as well as Blur's Think Tank (2003). Lyrically, the song depicts the emotional and physical scarring of New York City following the September 11 attacks, with lines such as "See the great white scar over Battery Park" acknowledging the 9/11 tragedy. Bowie stated that the lyrics reflected New York at that moment in time rather than a specific reaction to the attacks. O'Leary compares its disconnected details to that of the "shell-shocked narrator" in "Time Will Crawl" (1987). Meanwhile, Pegg states that the second verse's juxtaposition of the real versus the fake establishes a common theme throughout the entire album.

"Pablo Picasso" was written by Jonathan Richman and originally recorded by the Modern Lovers in 1972 and released on their eponymous studio album in 1976. On covering it, Bowie explained: "I just salvaged this one from the past because I always thought it was a fantastically funny lyric". Wanting to put a contemporary spin on it, Bowie changed the lyrics and used new chords. As such, his version is a more upbeat, rockier version compared to the minimalist original, but nevertheless remains tongue-in-cheek. Visconti's production utilises a wall of synthesisers against bursts of guitar and energetic percussion.

"Never Get Old" features a catchy guitar hook with echoing percussion and an elegant bassline. Lyrically, it presents a reflection on ageing and an expression on both desperation and denial. The music and lyrics recall the themes and styles of Heathen, and the Berlin albums Low and "Heroes" (both 1977). Additionally, the thought of "never getting old" has been a mainstay in Bowie's songwriting, in tracks from "Changes" (1971) to "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" (1999). Pegg describes the line "I think about this and I think about personal history" as a "key line" for the entire Reality album. Described by Bowie as "a very despairing piece of work", "The Loneliest Guy" is the quietest and most reflective track on the album, which Pegg analyses as a "haunting meditation on memory, fortune and happiness". It's subject is a loner who realises he is lucky, as he has no one else to look out for but himself. Bowie revealed that the imagery was inspired by the modernist city of Brasília; in his words, "a city taken over by weeds".

"Looking for Water" is straightforward rock number that combines Slick's "discordant guitar squeals" with a repetitive bassline and "metronomic" drums. Both Pegg and O'Leary found echoes of Never Let Me Down tracks, particularly "Glass Spider". Similar to "New Killer Star", the song concerns post-9/11 nihilism. Bowie elaborated in 2003: "When I wrote it, I just had this image of somebody crawling through the desert looking for water[...] But then that made me think, well, the only think he would be looking at would be the oil pumps.[...] This must be about a military, industrial situation[...] That's kind of what was on my mind." Likewise, Perone analyses it as symbolic of the basic necessities of life while the narrator is surrounded by the trappings of modern technology. Bowie described "She'll Drive the Big Car" as "a tragic little story about a lady and her family. And she lives in the wrong part of town, but she wants to live in an even badder, wronger part of town – but her would-be affair, her boyfriend, doesn't turn up." Like several of the album's tracks, it eavesdrops onto a wretched and despaired life in which a woman dreams of wealth but is stuck being a mundane house wife. Musically, it is a funkier number reminiscent of Bowie's soul era, particularly tracks like "Golden Years" (1975). O'Leary writes that Bowie's harmonica can be heard for the first time since "Never Let Me Down" (1987).

"Days" is a love song that continues the album's sub-themes of "weary retrospection and aging regret". Bowie uses the same vocal style as "The Loneliest Guy" to present, in Pegg's words, "a simple and poignant plea for forgiveness". Bowie stated during a concert in Melbourne that "I sometimes feel I wrote this song for so many people". It is musically simple, boasting a "faux-naif arrangement of low-tech synthesisers and twanging guitars against a jogging beat", which Pegg compares to the 1980s works of Soft Cell and Depeche Mode. According to Bowie, the title of "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" came from a Kellogg Brown & Root article and was subtle commentary on the then-emerging Iraq War. He further described it as "an ugly song sung by an ugly man", whom he hinted as being then-US vice-president Dick Cheney. In The Complete David Bowie, Pegg writes: "It's a lament for the circumstances that have brought us to 'these blackest of years'. Cocking a contemptuous snook at the increasing predilection of political parties to find 'someone to hate' while jumping into bed with business corporations." Musically, the song contains similar rhythms of "New Killer Star", and the melodic motives that permeated Heathen.

"Try Some, Buy Some" was written by George Harrison for Ronnie Spector, who released it as a single in April 1971; Harrison later released his own version on his 1973 album Living in the Material World. Bowie, a longtime admirer of the track, wanted to cover it as far back as 1979 before finally doing so for Reality. Pegg states that it unwittingly became a tribute to Harrison, who died in November 2001. The arrangement on Bowie's version mostly stays true to the original, although in the artist's words, "the overall atmosphere is somewhat different". Pegg and Perone contend that the "retrospective, older-and-wiser lyric" is appropriate for both Reality and Bowie himself. The hard rock title track is the album's loudest and rockiest moment, recalling the assault of "Hallo Spaceboy" (1995) and Bowie's works with the rock band Tin Machine. The song's message concerning how the quest for meaning in life is always doomed to fail lies at the heart of the album's loose theme; as Bowie stated, "The basis is more an all-pervasive influence of contingency than a defined structure of absolutes". The track also adopts the artificial narrative that real life has no narrative. Perone opines that it sees Bowie acknowledge that he hid behind personas and drugs throughout the early 1970s and his now facing reality.

Pegg calls "Bring Me the Disco King" "one of the most idiosyncratic and strikingly dramatic numbers in the entire Bowie songbook". After being shorthanded for several earlier albums, Bowie and Garson stripped the song down to a four-bar drum loop, vocal and piano, which the former felt worked best. Almost eight minutes in length, the song adopts a New York jazz sound that sees Garson playing an improvised piano solo similar to his one on "Aladdin Sane" (1973). Representing a culmination of the album's lyrical themes, the song offers fragmented images of, in Pegg's words, "creeping age, squandered opportunities, thwarted lives and impending dissolution". According to O'Leary, it marked Garson's final performance on a Bowie record. The outtake "Fly" features guitar playing by Bowie's longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar, marking the final collaboration between the two. Concerning a middle-class family man who suffers from anxiety and depression, it lyrically forestalls the "domestic American angst" of Reality tracks "New Killer Star" and "She'll Drive the Big Car". Its funky guitar riff was based on Devo's "Whip It" (1980).

Title and artwork

On the concept of 'reality': it's a broken, fractured word now. It feels at times that there really is no sense any more, in a major way, and that everything is being broken down for us, and the absolutes have gone, and you end up with pits and pieces of what our culture was.

–David Bowie on the title, 2003

In June 2002, Bowie announced the album title as Reality and described it to Blender magazine as "a bit thrusty." Reflecting the ideal that reality has become an abstract concept, Bowie explained in 2004 that "the title encapsulate[s] the prosaic nature of the project itself". The cover artwork was designed by Jonathan Barnbrook in collaboration with graphic artist Rex Ray; Barnbrook previously created the typography for Heathen, while Ray designed the artworks for Hours and the Best of Bowie compilation (2002). Ditching the airbrushed intellectualism of the Heathen artwork, Ray's artwork for Reality depicts Bowie in a cartoon, anime-style persona, with features typical of Japanese animation, including an exaggerated hairstyle, oversized eyes and simplified lines. He steps forward against a background of various shapes, ink blobs, balloons and stars. Bowie compared it to Hello Kitty and bluntly stated in an interview that "The whole thing has a subtext of 'I'm taking the piss, this is not supposed to be reality'."


In the weeks prior to its release, the album was promoted on Bowie's website BowieNet via the release of excerpts of each track, titled "Reality jukebox", while the Sunday Times released various CD-ROM featurettes. ISO and Columbia officially issued Reality in Europe and other territories on 15 September 2003, and in America the following day. Like Heathen, it appeared in two CD formats: a single disc and a two-disc version with the outtakes "Fly" and "Queen of All the Tarts (Overture)", along with a studio re-recording of Bowie's 1974 single "Rebel Rebel"; the Japanese CD included "Waterloo Sunset" as a bonus track. In the ensuing months other versions appeared, including a "Tour Edition" to coincide with the A Reality Tour in each territory the tour travelled to; the November European release included "Waterloo Sunset" and a DVD containing a complete performance of Reality from 8 September at Riverside Studios.

Meanwhile, the SACD release came in December; EMI also issued a remixed SACD in September, which was packaged with three Bowie albums: Ziggy Stardust (2003), Scary Monsters (1980) and Let's Dance (1983). In February 2004, Columbia issued Reality on the new DualDisc format, containing the standard album on one side and the 5.1 mix in DVD-Audio format on the other. This release was initially restricted to the Boston and Seattle areas of the United States, with a worldwide release 12 months later. Reality did not receive an official release on vinyl until 2014 by the label Music on Vinyl.

Commercial performance

Reality entered the UK Albums Chart at number three, becoming Bowie's highest charting album in the UK since Black Tie White Noise ten years prior. However, sales quickly fell after only four weeks. The album topped the charts in Denmark and the Czech Republic, and entered Billboard's European Top 100 Albums at number one. Across Europe, Reality peaked at number two in France, Norway and Scotland, number three in Austria, Belgium Wallonia and Germany, number four in Belgium Flanders and Italy, number five in Sweden and Switzerland, number six in Ireland and Portugal, and number eight in Finland. It also peaked at number nine in Canada.

It fared worse in other European countries, reaching number 14 in the Netherlands and number 25 in Spain. Outside Europe, Reality reached number 13 in Australia, number 14 in New Zealand, and number 47 in Japan. In the US, Reality peaked at number 29 on the Billboard 200, failing to replicate the success of Heathen, but outperforming Earthling and Hours.


Reality was not supported through conventional single releases. Pegg opines that in the advent of Apple's iTunes, which was launched in April 2003, it was "already clear" that CD singles were becoming obsolete. As such, the music video for "New Killer Star" was released as a DVD-only single in the UK, US and other territories on 29 September 2003. An audio-only version was issued as a conventional CD single in Canada, while the full-length album version appeared in Italy. Both releases were backed by "Love Missile F1-11". As the debut single, "New Killer Star" received extensive airplay during Bowie's promotional television appearances for the album.

"Never Get Old" was first previewed in France as early as June 2003 through a television advertisement for Vittel mineral water that featured Bowie himself. It was also posted online to BowieNet. The song was originally scheduled to be released as the album's second single to coincide with Bowie's UK tour dates, but it was shelved at the last minute, similar to "Slow Burn" the previous year. Promotional CDs continuing an edited version, backed by "Waterloo Sunset", appeared in Europe while in Britain, the two tracks appeared as digital downloads on Sony Music's UK site in November. "Never Get Old" also appeared as a Japanese A-side in March 2004. A mash-up of "Never Get Old" and "Rebel Rebel", created by Endless Noise in March 2004 and titled "Rebel Never Gets Old", appeared in an ad campaign for Audi in America. This release appeared as a conventional single in June and peaked at number 47 in the UK.

Critical reception

Professional ratings
Aggregate scores
Review scores
Encyclopedia of Popular Music
Entertainment WeeklyC+
The Guardian
Rolling Stone
The Rolling Stone Album Guide
USA Today

Reality received largely positive reviews from music critics on release. Like many of the artist's most recent releases, several reviewers considered it his best since Scary Monsters, although many were quick to recognise the reception Heathen earned the year prior and made positive comparisons. One reviewer for the Miami Herald stated that "with each listen, Reality feels stronger than Heathen. That's two good ones in a row". Another review from John Mulvey of Dotmusic considered the songs on Reality stronger than Heathen: "If Heathen was a little overpraised by relieved critics, then Reality is a more deserving case." Pitchfork's Eric Carr further contested that "what last year's Heathen implied, and what Reality seems to prove, is that... Bowie has finally joined us all in the present, mind-young as ever but old enough not to make a show of it." He ultimately called the album "pretty good" and believed it cemented his status as a modern artist. John Aizlewood of the Evening Standard found the album more cohesive than Heathen and named it the publication's CD of the week. Comparing it to Bowie's previous works, he argued that it stands on its own and with Reality, the artist has "rediscovered" himself and "regained his dignity". Several also considered Reality a return to form for the artist.

Some critics highlighted the lyrics and vocal performances as showcasing a maturity absent from previous works. Several also commented on the music. In the Miami Herald, Howard Cohen commended the artist for playing to his musical strengths rather than "hopping aboard some inappropriate youthful bandwagon". In The Mail on Sunday, Tim De Lisle wrote that "this record pulsates with creative vigour", offering "a gleaming showcase for his voice, or rather voices. Bowie has always been several people and most of them are here." Anthony DeCurtis praised the covers in Rolling Stone and felt the guitar work on "New Killer Star" was reminiscent of Mick Ronson's work on Lou Reed's 1972 album Transformer. He ultimately believed Bowie succeeded in searching for "reality", to the artist's "mixed dismay and amusement". Senior AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine complimented the modernisation of Bowie and Visconti's former 1970s sound. While he called its predecessor an amalgamation of Hunky Dory to "Heroes", he found Reality picks up where its predecessor left off, creating an blend of "Heroes" to Scary Monsters. Making further comparisons to Heathen, Erlewine felt Reality was "artier", but "similar in feel" and "just as satisfying". He concluded: "Both records are testaments to the fact that veteran rockers can make satisfyingly classicist records without resulting in nostalgia or getting too comfortable." Remarking on the lyrics, Ryan Lenz of Associated Press described the album as "an exercise in introspection" and analysed Reality as not "a vehicle for commentary on contemporary times", but rather encapsulating an artist "nearing 60 and finding the world disappointingly clear and never what it seemed".

It's a rather singular accomplishment that Reality makes the personal contemplation of mortality sound so crashingly, defiantly vital... In short, it has all the alchemy of a great rock record – songs about death that were made to be played loud and live.

–Mim Udovitch, The New York Times

Several reviewers praised the album as a whole. Uncut's Chris Roberts hailed Reality as "a very, very good sexy-angst album" filled with "lovely, left-handed songs, rich with unexpected angles, daring detours and words which muse over mortality yet emerge seeming upbeat", further summarising the lyrics as "mournful" and the music as "euphoric". Andy Gill of The Independent described the album as a "satisfying, chunk solidity of songs" that starts on a high point but ends on a "draggy" note. Nevertheless, he highlighted the two covers and "New Killer Star". On the other hand, NME's Tim Wild signalled out "Bring Me the Disco King" as "a true thing of beauty" among a "sweet collection of songs". Caroline Sullivan of The Guardian praised Reality as "touching [and] intelligent" and that it "gels unexpectedly well". Reviewing Reality for the BBC, Darryl Easlea called it "a proper album, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's direct, warm, emotional honest, even and the surfeit of pleasingly deceptive musical simplicity allows the irony of the central concept – that there is no such thing as reality anymore – an opportunity to filter through. It's also rather lively and convincing." Meanwhile, The Observer's Kitty Empire cited "how wonderfully unforced it all sounds" as the album's defining feature. Although she found it inferior to the artist's Berlin-era works, she deemed Reality "the first sequence of Bowie songs that bears repeated listening in years", concluding that "it is a pleasure, rather than a grim duty done out of respect for the memory of Ziggy Stardust." The New York Times writer Mim Udovitch praising Visconti's production as "impeccable" and remarked on the sense of immediacy that "makes you feel that Mr Bowie and his spectacularly hard-rocking band might be about to materialize in your living room ready for an encore." In a review for the 2007 limited-edition box set David Bowie Box, critic Thom Jurek described Reality as a "schizophrenic recording", on which the covers of "Try Some, Buy Some" and "Pablo Picasso" "[distinguish] this set more than anything else".

Nevertheless, some reviewers expressed more mixed assessments. Entertainment Weekly's Mark Weingarten cited the production as continuing to hinder Bowie's work since Black Tie White Noise, but nevertheless called the writing an improvement over his previous records. In The Austin Chronicle, Marc Savlov contended that "While Reality isn't a failure by anyone's standards, there's precious few moments that you can recall, much less hum, an hour after listening to it."


Bowie performing in Dublin, Ireland, in November 2003 during the A Reality Tour, his final tour.

Having become revitatilised for performing following the Heathen Tour, Bowie embarked on a world tour to support Reality that would become his most extensive tour since the mid-1990s. It also surpassed the 1983 Serious Moonlight, 1987 Glass Spider and 1990 Sound+Vision tours to become, on the basis of individual dates, the longest tour of his career. Labelled "A Reality Tour", Pegg states that "the indefinite article emphasi[ses] the album's dalliance with the notion that there can be no absolute definition of reality." The same personnel as the Heathen Tour and Reality–Slick, Garson, Dorsey, Russell and Campbell–returned for the new shows, with Leonard taking Plati's place as bandleader. Rehearsals began in July 2003 before the tour commenced on 19 August with a small warm-up gig for BowieNet members only.

Most of September 2003 was spent playing various gigs to promote the upcoming release of Reality. One of the biggest was on 8 September, when the band performed the entire Reality album to various celebrities and BowieNet members at London's Riverside Studios. The event was broadcast live to more than 80 cinemas in 22 countries worldwide, although many suffered issues related to audio syncing and time delays. Nevertheless, the event was deemed a success and was followed by a Q&A session with fans. Several television appearances followed before the first official show in Copenhagen on 7 October.

The shows on A Reality Tour were more theatrical compared to preceding tours, being dominated by LED lights, raised catwalks and staircases. According to Buckley, the band prepared more than 50 songs for the shows, although Garson later contested to learning around 60 to 70. Beginning with the Reality outtake "Queen of All the Tarts (Overture)" before the curtain-up, the setlist contained a variety of material across Bowie's entire career, ranging from classic hits to more obscure tracks. Numerous tracks from both Reality and Heathen were included, while tracks like Lodger's "Fantastic Voyage" (1979) made their live debut and others, such as Tonight's "Loving the Alien" (1984), were given radical reworkings. The band also swapped out songs throughout the shows and by the start of 2004, the band had performed over 50 songs total.

A Reality Tour received critical acclaim throughout its run. However, the long setlists began taking a toll on Bowie in mid-November 2003, resulting the cancellation of a concert in Toulouse after he contracted laryngitis, but he quickly recovered and was back on stage two days later. Two shows in Dublin were later released in 2010 on the A Reality Tour album and DVD. Nevertheless, Bowie encountered more health problems in early December with a bout of influenza, resulting in the postponement of five US dates. Further tragedy struck on 3 May 2004 when a lighting technician fell to his death during the support act, after which the show was immediately cancelled. On 23 June, Bowie was forced to end the show early due to what medical personnel deemed a pinched shoulder nerve. Although he was back on stage two days later at the Hurricane Festival in Germany, his condition worsened and on 30 June, all 14 remaining dates were cancelled and A Reality Tour became his final concert tour. Pegg later described it as one of his best concert tours.

Aftermath and legacy

Reality finds Bowie returning, as he put it, "to the themes that have gnawed at me since I was a teenager – trying to find a sense of isolation, and a vague futurism." The result is not just a worthy successor to Heathen, but a fine and substantial addition to the canon, delivered with maturity, confidence and panache.

–Nicholas Pegg, 2016

Bowie underwent a procedure for a blocked artery known as angioplasty on 26 June, which was announced to the public in July 2004. Two days later, a tour insider stated that he suffered a heart attack backstage. Following the incident, Bowie withdrew from the public eye. Over the following years he was spotted at local New York venues and made occasional appearances at concerts by artists such as Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire and David Gilmour, with his final live public performance taking place on 9 November 2006 at the Hammerstein Ballroom, where he performed "Changes". He occasionally contributed to various studio recordings by artists such as TV on the Radio and Scarlett Johansson, but did not release another studio album until The Next Day in 2013, making Reality his final album of original material for ten years.

Bowie's biographers have given Reality mixed to positive assessments. In Strange Fascination, Buckley finds Reality lacks both a "coherent musical identity" and "any thematic trajectory", furthermore observing a general feeling of "laxity" and underwritten songs: "whilst around a third of the songs on Reality are Bowie near top form, the remainder vary from good to merely pleasant." O'Leary considers it "overlong" and following the release of The Next Day, Reality reestablished itself as "a minor album whose songs were built to be blasted on stage". On the other hand, Perone finds it a "strong album", detecting and commending the consistent themes throughout and highlights the covers. Meanwhile, Marc Spitz called Reality superior to Heathen in Bowie: A Biography, remarking that the addition of Slick makes it more of a guitar record. Published in 2009 before the release of The Next Day, Spitz found it worthy as a swan song to Bowie's long career. Author Paul Trynka gave the album three out of four stars, citing a familiar sound but overall, he writes the record proves that, with the likes of tracks like "Bring Me the Disco King", Bowie "has the potential to conjure up pleasures as yet unknown".

In The Complete David Bowie, Pegg states that one of the album's successes is that it emerges with a "reinvigorated sense of rock attack" following the "delicate, self-consciously artful[ness]" of its predecessor, equating both records to the relationships between Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, or Outside (1995) and Earthling. Further comparing the two albums, he writes that Reality offers "less complexity and fewer sonic layers" than Heathen in exchange for "a greater abundance of catchy hooks and buoyant pop-rock atmospherics". Nevertheless, despite having a more accessible atmosphere, he states that Reality "sacrifices none of Heathen's artistic sensibility" and "its lasting value lies not just in its infectious melodies and evocative lyrics, but in the exquisitely judged oddness of its sonic textures". In 2016, Bryan Wawzenek of Ultimate Classic Rock placed Reality at number 16 out of 26 in a list ranking Bowie's studio albums from worst to best, praising Bowie's comfortability on the record and his version of "Pablo Picasso". Including Bowie's two albums with Tin Machine, Consequence of Sound ranked Reality number 24 out of 28 in a 2018 list, with Pat Levy highlighting the covers but ultimately called it "a decent record in the pantheon of Bowie, nothing more, nothing less".

Track listing

All tracks are written by David Bowie, except where noted.

Reality track listing
1."New Killer Star"4:40
2."Pablo Picasso" (Jonathan Richman)4:06
3."Never Get Old"4:25
4."The Loneliest Guy"4:11
5."Looking for Water"3:28
6."She'll Drive the Big Car"4:35
8."Fall Dog Bombs the Moon"4:04
9."Try Some, Buy Some" (George Harrison)4:24
11."Bring Me the Disco King"7:45
Total length:49:25
Reality – 2CD Limited edition / Japanese edition
12."Waterloo Sunset" (Ray Davies)3:28
Total length:52:53
Reality – 2CD Limited edition – Disc 2
2."Queen of All the Tarts (Overture)"2:53
3."Rebel Rebel" (Re-recording)3:11
Total length:63:07


Credits per biographers Nicholas Pegg and Chris O'Leary.

Additional personnel


Charts and certifications

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