Sunday, 15 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #92: 'hours...' (1999)

Bowie's second entry marks the dawn of what can loosely be called the 'neo-classical era' in Bowie lore. 'hours...' finds himself coming to terms with old age and his multiple identities which shaped his albums and with them the face of music.

The 1990s had been a tough time for Bowie. Although his first foray into mainstream dance-pop, Let's Dance (1983), had received positive reviews and produced a No. 1 hit, its follow-ups, Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987), had been slated, all-but-bringing Bowie's career to a grinding halt. In response, he formed Tin Machine, a band whose first album set the tone for what would become guitar-oriented grunge; but with Bowie feeling creatively stifled the band only produced one more (inconsequential) album before disbanding in 1993. Bowie spent the next six years jumping from genre to genre, but rather than setting the trends as he had done in the past, he was now ironically impersonating them to regain popularity. But from the hip-hop soul touches on the now-rare Black Tie White Noise (1993) to the industrial Outside (1995) to the drum-and-bass techno of Earthling (1997), his efforts received mixed-to-negative reviews and all sold poorly.

'hours...' sees Bowie settling down and realising that his golden-age work could not be topped. We begin with 'Thursday's Child', a song which encapsulates Bowie's feelings completely. In the first verse he addresses his chameleonic past with humour - All of my life I've tried so hard/ Doing my best with what I had/ Nothing much happened all the same - and considerable irony - Something about me stood apart/ A whisper of hope that seemed to fail/ Maybe I'm born right out of my time/ Breaking my life in two. We are beingh introduced to a Bowie which, although he still 'has far to go', is increasingly comfortable about his path and his legacy. It is often said that Bowie's multiple changes in personality and identity were down not to a desire to be pioneering but rather fundamental insecurities - in either case it would appear that these are now being laid to rest.

'Something In The Air' and 'Survive' both continue this theme of coping with the past and growing old. On the first track, we are treated to some interesting guitar effects which sit brooding in the background under the verses, only to rear their sinister heads in the chorus. Bowie's voice is electronically distorted which gives the feeling of anguish and distress, adding to the theme of desperation and despair that doubtlessly dogged him throughout his 1990s turmoil. 'Survive' switches tone, being a more relaxed, acoustic number (initially). Here Bowie sings in reassurance that this is not the end; while he may no longer be in his prime or the most pioneering musician around, he will stay around if only for those that love him. Though one feels that the distorted, elongated guitars don't really add anything, this is a very assured number and a good listen.

'If I'm Dreaming My Life' is more drawn-out and a great deal less compelling. As on all his albums, Bowie has by habit taken a great series of songs (in this case the first three) and thrown in a wierder track to throw the audience - and on 'hours...' as with the rest, it doesn't always pay off. Bowie's voice is a bit drawly, the drums are flat and lifeless, and the lyrics are quite forgetable. As part of the album this fits nicely, but if it attempted to stand alone it wouldn't work.

Focus and quality both return in 'Seven'. The opening is reminicent of a Lightning Seeds song - most likely 'Punch And Judy' off Jollification (1994). This, like all the tracks, is introspective, but is the only track thus far to equal the heartfelt appeal of 'Thursday's Child'. The lyrics speak of death - I got seven days to live my life/ Or seven ways to die - but these could also be about luck and of course his various incarnations (though I think there were way more than seven). 'What's Really Happening?' attempts to sustain this quality with Berlin-era guitar work at the start to set a dark tone, but Bowie's voice is too high-pitched and the harmonies too out-of-kiltre to support this rather humdrum work, whose lyrics are the weakest on the album.

'The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell' is a great rocker which even non-Bowie fans will enjoy. At last, drums achieve some form of prominence thanks to great combell work and a catchy under-rhythm. The guitar effects here are again dark and the lyrics sharply despondent - You're still breathing but you don't know why/ Life's a bit and sometimes you die - referencing Les Misérables of all places. This sounds like a synthesis of lite metal and hard rock - and it works. It really, really works.

'New Angels Of Promise' is the last track on the album to fall short of expectations. There are two reasons for this. First of all, the opening is bad, sounding like a flautist's rip-off of 'Misty Mountain Hop' (itself an awful song). And second, Bowie's lyrics are both uncaptivating and are delivered in his most grating, irritating voice. On a song designed to expose the agonies of his soul, a nasal sneer - interlaced with rubbish crooning - is usually uncalled for.

Thankfully, the closers both restore faith in Bowie's abilities and the message of the album. 'Brilliant Adventure' is a marvellously well-constructed 2-minute instrumental which restores the tone to one of brooding, unpredictable introspection. So often the use of repeating riffs sounds formulaic and tired - here it is the perfect way to add tension to the piece, which in itself acts as the perfect lead-in to 'The Dreamers'. This song could be best described as 'the grower' - the more you listen to it, the more you like it. Its opening is dark, industrial and has a Berlin-era feel in the use of synthesisers. Bowie has adjusted his voice to suit the mood perfectly - here he is stricken, anxious and despondent. The catchy guitars make up for the completely absence of a discernable bass line, and though the drums are again underused, this does not matter because lyrically this is one of the strongest efforts on the album. The chorus seems to sum up Bowie's attitude towards himself - So it goes/ Just a searcher/ A lonely soul/ The last of the dreamers. He may well be right.

Bowie's neo-classical period is characterised by him taking the best parts of his back catalogue and using them as a mould for his new records. If this is true, then 'hours...' is a perfect example. It is a great effort to synthesise the lyrical whimsy of Hunky Dory (1971) with the atmospheric textures of Low (1977), with the introspection and contemporary themes overlayed, producing an album that is both contemporarily interesting and that his ageing fanbase can enjoy. This may seem cynical, but Bowie devotees may spot this in the music at least. The efforts don't always work - in many places the lyrics are a little flat, and throughout the rhythm section is underused. But while this is not one of Bowie's great works by any standard, it serves as a useful time capsule on his career as it was at the end of the 20th century. If nothing else, it would begin the much-deserved rehabilitation of his long and variegated career.

3.70 out of 5

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