Erick Haight wrote this review based on an advance CD of 'hours...' from Virgin. Erick is a long time reviewer of new albums, having also contributed one of our first reader reviews for Earthling.
First of all, a disclaimer; I am a longtime Bowie fan who will shell out $$ for the Virgin reissues in a few weeks, even though I have the Ryko versions. So of course, my opinions will be biased. Secondly, I wrote an advance review of Earthling a few years back saying that I wasn't too fond of the disc; in retrospect, my comments were made in haste, as Earthling has insinuated itself into my heart based on lots and lots of airplay in my head. Lastly, reviews are opinions meant to be points of comparison, not purchasing dictates; buy 'hours...' no matter what anyone says if you are interested, and see how your thoughts match up with the thoughts of others. No one view is more important than your own.
My first impressions of the "hours..." cover is that Bowie is making a statement about musical expectations. Shaggy Bowie is holding Buzzcut Bowie in a sad yet soothing way, suggesting that the Bowie of the previous few albums is another shell to be discarded, giving way to the new Bowie, the amalgam of all that came before. The long hair of the past, the white clothes of the present, and the aged experience of the future coalesce in his sorrowful look, pining for the undefined. The stark, spare background suggests that the sterile future hinted at by past Bowie tracks has come true, and the world is poorer for it. Of course, I see deep meaning in Britney Spears' cover art, so take that for what you will.
Upon first listen, the music is... well, it's not what I expected, based on Bowie's '90s musical output. As said in interviews, the focus seems to be on actual songs, with pretty melodies and verse-chorus-verse carried by synths and guitars both acoustic and electric. The sense of adventure and experimentation so clear in Outside and Earthling has mostly vanished, replaced by pop and rock filtered through Bowie's skewed sensibilities but still grounded in the works of the past. It's AOR with the "A" standing for "Alien."
Yet at the same time it's a memorable work, with insinuating hooks in every song that could give Bowie his first real shot at video and radio airplay in over a decade. He's managed that rare task of distilling the essence of his art into music for the masses without slipping into the abyss of cliché. Which I just did.
Thursday's Child is probably the weakest track on the record, and therefore most likely to become a hit. A gentle crooning vocal, pillowy synth backgrounds , cooing female chorus...it's got VH-1 written all over it. It's not that it's complete shite, but it sounds like a wistful acquiescence into middle-aged refle ction, and that threw me for a loop upon first listen.
Survive and Seven are the best of the acoustic-based tracks, both with breakout potential without sounding too crass and commercial. Survive, with a punchy guitar line that harkens back to Ziggy-era Bowie, is a real highlight, with an easy, engaging vocal that hooked me right away. Although Seven works with its current arrangement, I would have liked to hear the song with the propulsive bassline that was hinted at on BowieNet. Future remix, please? :-) If I'm Dreaming My Life, New Angels Of Promise, and Something In The Air are mid-tempo guitar driven tracks, solid if not spectacular.
The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell is dead-on rock, and wouldn't have sounded out of place on the second Tin Machine disc. This track probably has the best chance to make it in the U.S. so long as programmers get past their ageism. I believe MTV is doing a "Making The Video" for that track, so that bodes well. I think.
For me, three tracks really stand out. It hurts me to say that What's Really Happening? is a highlight, as my lyric entry was tossed aside, but everything about that song works, from the lyric to Bowie's vocal to the air of portent around the song. Brilliant Adventure would have fit into the instrumental section of "Heroes" hand in glove; it's so moving it almost sounds out of place on this album. The closer The Dreamers has a propulsive beat and a killer vocal, bringing the disc to close with a flourish.
Be warned, however, that 'hours...' didn't hit me at first. As I said, my first impression was that Bowie wanted a new hit record to coincide with the reissues, so he concocted the nostalgic stew of 'hours...' to cash in. But it became clear after a few listens that he's not recycling past glories, but rather drawing from past inspirations to continue his personal musical journey towards whatever goal he has his eye upon. It's new, it's different, it's Bowie.
But can we please see "Contamination" before I die?