David Bowie- Hours

 

 

 

Alongside the earlier Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack, Hours is the largely unheralded beginning of Bowie’s 21st Century renaissance. Following on from his bold, partly-successful but ultimately trying-too-hard dabblings in drum n’ bass on Outside and Earthling- which have dated badly and now sound more like a mid-life crisis than anything else, the musical equivalent of buying yourself a flash sports car for your fiftieth birthday (or, ahem, marrying a gorgeous young model)- and coming before his acclaimed “return to form” with Heathen, Hours is the album where Bowie finally shook off the creative malaise that had dogged him since Scary Monsters, stopped worrying about keeping up with all the other Joneses, gave up on twenty years of role-playing and delivered a batch of strong, traditional, heartfelt songs that played to his strengths as a singer and songwriter, that drew on his own musical and personal history but came out somehow sounding clean, uncluttered, and, most paradoxically of all- young.

  Admittedly, by comparison to his previous couple of albums, Bowie is playing it safe on Hours. It sounds like the kind of album you’d expect a 52-year-old millionaire rock legend to make- tasteful, sedate, well-tailored synthesised rock moving at a stately pace, with lyrics largely about looking back and wondering what it was all about. But, crucially, it’s far better than you expect it to be. As someone who grew up with ‘80s Bowie, got into Ziggy and, especially, the Anthony Newley-influenced World of David Bowie album in my teens, and became obsessed with all his ‘70s personas in my mid-twenties, I nevertheless saw Bowie as a legendary figure from some mythical past- rock’s long-gone, pre-punk golden age of the sixties and early seventies- and had no interest in him as a current performer until I saw him at the Glastonbury Festival in 2000. Suddenly I saw him as still active, not remote and legendary- alien- but someone here and now, flawed, human, approachable, and still capable of good work. So I borrowed all of his recent albums from Brighton library when I got back, and taped them. And Hours, then his most recent, was the one that I kept coming back to. Before Glastonbury I had thought that Bowie, like all rock stars, had it for a time when he was young, and then lost it, as was inevitable. Maybe I was becoming a bit more forgiving as I approached thirty myself; maybe, God forbid, my tastes were mellowing. But Hours certainly struck a chord; it sounded honest, elegiac, and real.

  As the title suggests, this is an album all about the passing of time, almost relentlessly so.  And as Bowie cradles his dying self on the cover, all dressed in white, so on the back sleeve he appears in triplicate, all in black and sat round a coiled black serpent. The figure on the left has his head in his hands. The exact symbolism of all this escapes me, but I’d guess we’re talking about death and rebirth, temptation and regret. The album is co-written with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Bowie’s right-hand man since the arguably unfairly reviled Tin Machine, and the pair also handle production duties.

  “All of my life I’ve tried so hard,” it begins, on ‘Thursday’s Child,’ before continuing “nothing much happened all the same.” The mood seems similar to another turn-of-the-decade identity crisis, in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ twenty years earlier, when Bowie sang, “I’ve never done good things; I’ve never done bad things…” Melancholy waves of synthesiser and fretless bass wind round a laid-back shuffle beat, and when the girlie backing vocals come in on “throw me tomorrow,” even the hardest punk heart melts in the face of such smooth perfection. If the lyrics seem a touch self-pitying then at least the sentiments seem sincere, and ultimately the mood is positive: “Seeing my past to let it go… Everything’s falling into place… I don’t regret that I was Thursday’s Child.”

  The dramatic ‘Something in the Air’ finds Bowie the old showbiz pro singing in his trademark tense, closed-mouth style from back in his throat, allowing for maximum impact when he opens up just a bit more on the chorus, restraint being everything you see (always leave them wanting more… always keep something up your sleeve). The lyrics tell of a love affair that’s gone on far too long, the moment of realisation that the feeling has gone, a metaphor doubtless for Bowie’s broader sense of ennui.

  The shrugging regret of ‘Survive’ finds Bowie singing in his native, though somewhat affected, cockney accent, which always suggest a heartfelt nakedness and autobiographical content to the lyrics. It could just be another calculated device, but as he sings of “Beatle Boys all snowy white, razzle dazzle clubs every night,” it’s hard not to believe him. And ultimately, if it works, does it really matter? He shifts into his alienated Bing Crosby-in-space croon for ‘If I’m Dreaming my Life,’ with its suggestive, haiku-like lyrics and effective time changes, Bowie floating, disconnected, into the void at the end with Reeves Gabrels sounding more than ever like a digital age Mick Ronson. On ‘Seven’ he plays slide guitar like George Harrison, over acoustic strumming and Bowie ruminating carelessly on mortality and loss. It’s a beautiful, simple song and a reminder that beyond all the concepts and what-not, Bowie just has an amazing, expressive voice, which has carried him through more lean material than many would admit.

  The big questions- complex yet dreadfully simple- continue to recur on ‘What’s Really Happening?’ and ‘The Pretty Things are going to Hell,’ which references both one of Bowie’s favourite ‘60s beat groups and a song from Iggy’s Raw Power (which Bowie of course produced), in a song about the excesses and ecstasies of doomed, or damned, youth, and where they leave you in the end. “The pretty things are going to Hell, they wore it out but they wore it well.” Of course, all us flaming teenage existentialists knew how it had to end- you might die, or you might even live- but we Did It, and we knew it counted for nothing, because doesn’t everything count for nothing, isn’t it all just bravado and the angle that you turn your collar, but isn’t that everything too?

  And suddenly, on ‘New Angels of Promise’ it’s like we’re listening to a lost track from Low, albeit with conventional late-nineties production values. It’s those odd scales he’s singing, and the cut-up sounding lyrics. ‘Brilliant Adventure’ is even more so, one of those ominous, eastern-sounding instrumentals, all minimalist synthesiser, woodblocks and windchimes. After these late treats, the relatively tuneless ‘The Dreamers’ is a slightly disappointing, anticlimactic ending, Bowie murmuring apocalyptic imagery in self-parodic vocal style. “So it goes, just a searcher, lonely soul, last of the dreamers.” These are the final lines; resigned, philosophical, world-weary.  

  Apparently Bowie intended this album to be a dialogue between a middle-aged man and his younger self. While the lyrics are often as cryptic and ambiguous as ever, there’s certainly a strong existential theme running through the record, and no masks or characters- just an aging rock star / artist wondering if it’s all been worth it. Definitely melancholy and autumnal, but uplifting and empowering in the end, this is the best late-period Bowie album- his most consistent record since Scary Monsters, and better than the still-fine albums that came after. At Glastonbury, I realised that David Bowie was human after all; Hours is the recorded proof.

 

 

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