David Bowie

Reality (ISO/Columbia)

At this late date, only the acolytes await the latest Bowie release, the casual fan having been waved off long ago by slow sell-backs masquerading as Low comebacks every few years. Bowie will never be as artistically rewarding as he was during the '70s or as commercially viable as he was in the '80s. It's a fact of life -- sad, if you want to be sentimental about it, but realistic, if you prefer to be pragmatic -- in this age of scary pop monsters young enough to be his grandkids roaming the charts. Fine with him, of course, as it frees him up to write about being a middle-aged man ("Never Get Old," as if) without fear of cash-register retribution. Like Dylan, Bowie now proffers the oblique sneak peek into his life without giving away too much, only enough to pretend there's autobiography in those falsehoods. If you care, you care a lot; if not, you couldn't be bothered and shouldn't be blamed, not when the best songs on his last album were Pixies and Neil Young covers anyway.

Same goes here, with George Harrison-via-Ronnie Spector ("Try Some, Buy Some") and Jonathan Richman ("Pablo Picasso") standing tall among the sit-down rockers, which do the middle-aged shuffle without really breaking a sweat -- save the title track, at least till he starts singing about how "tragic youth was looking young and sexy," and then you just want to turn away from the man singing into the mirror. Once more he's working with Tony Visconti, and once more he's singing about living in NYC -- which means, no duh, thinly veiled songs about living, dying and dancing till sunup in Terrorist Town. Problem is, all you've really got here are a batch of well-done come-and-go-and-gone songs and not singles, which, despite the concepts and costumes of decades past, was where Bowie thrived -- ya know, the anthemic arena sing-along, the dance-floor chant, the space-age boogie. Hate to say it, but Bowie thrived before he figured out how to sing, much less dance; now he's just showing off without much to show for it.