Before Reality, Bowie had put out "Heathen" (2002), a record that reflected a spiritual crisis brought on by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Bowie, his wife-- the model Iman--and their daughter, Alexandria, who was born in 2000, live less than a mile from Ground Zero. He spoke movingly about the impact of that day and its aftermath.
He seemed interested in conveying as genuine a sense of himself as he could. The everyman identity with which he'd grown so comfortable now seems all the more poignant after the heart attack that forced him to cancel months of touring in the summer of 2004. A significantly longer version of this conversation appears in a section of "In Other Words" called "Beyond Irony," which also features interviews with David Byrne, Iggy Pop and Bryan Ferry.
After all these years of unsettling absolutes, you're calling your new album "Reality."
It is ironic. You haven't seen the artwork yet, but there's a fakeness to the cover that undermines that. It's the old chestnut: What is real and what isn't? It's actually about who's stolen this world.
Do you feel like your thinking about those questions has changed or deepened?
I honestly believe that my initial questions haven't changed at all. There are far fewer of them these days, but they're really important. Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always. It's because I'm not quite an atheist and it worries me. There's that little bit that holds on: "Well, I'm almost an atheist. Give me a couple of months." [Laughs]
Describe the process of making this album.
Very simple. I'd just written some songs, and I amalgamated them with a couple of covers I'd wanted to do. I didn't approach this with any kind of through line involved. It wasn't a conceptualized piece at all.
"Heathen" was very different. It was written as a deeply questioning album. Of course, it had one foot astride that awful event in September. So that was quite a traumatic album to finish. This one hints at that, but it's not really trying to resolve any trauma. [September 11] did affect me and my family very much. We live down here.
My wife and child were. I was up in Woodstock making the album. It was just unbearable that day--well, actually the next two or three days, coming back down and coming up against the cordon around that part of town. I had to get my wife to come to the barricades with a passport, so I could show the guy that I lived there. He said, "I'm sorry, I know who you are, but I have to see.," and all that. It was really weird. And that fine silt dust everywhere.
I never had seen New York so off its axis. What do you feel has been the aftermath?
I think there's a new awareness in New York about our isolationist stance in the rest of the world. There is a realization that even though this is one of the most important cities in the world, others are watching us. I don't think we ever felt that before. There's a slight unease. We really felt freewheeling and that "tomorrow belongs to us," anything can happen. Now, there's not quite that swaying surge of hopefulness.