Teenage Wildlife

'hours...' Review

by Dara O'Kearney

'hours...'
David Bowie
Virgin, 1999

It's always a very difficult task to guess "What Bowie did next?" without the benefit of hindsight. So much so that of all the Bowie fans and watchers I know, only one came remotely close to divining Bowie's next direction post-Earthling. The fan in question, noting the critical acclaim being heaped at Bob Dylan's "Time Out Of Mind" and a few passing references by Bowie to it correctly called Dylan's album as the key influence on Bowie's next record. So here we have it - Bowie's midlife crisis album. The lyrics are almost unremittingly grim and morose, the music unusually sparse and simple by the standards of 90s Bowie, though thankfully not without the frills and unexpected twists we expect from Bowie. With the benefit of hindsight, it makes perfect sense that having resolutely refused to act his age at 50 (in the words of one Scottish TV interviewer - "Earthling, it's young people's music") and (despite what the revisionists would now have you believe) received considerable critical acclaim for Earthling at the time, Bowie would with typical perversity now put out an album that doesn't so much act his age as wallow in it.

Middle-aged angst has proven a problematic topic for most art, and particularly for rock. Teenage angst - now that's a different matter entirely. There's an endless market for teenage angst in rock, it seems, whether it's screamed a la Trent Reznor or moaned a la Morrissey. Even if the emotion is as vapidly superficial as most teenagers themselves and based on a total lack of experience (as in, I'm afraid of the big bad grown-up world, so I'll retreat to a "The world sucks, everyone sucks, existence sucks" state until I've had time to grow up), the fact is few things look cooler than a bunch of teenagers in the best physical shape they will ever be in wailing about how sad the world is. Like fawns, they are dumb, but they look so cute in their dumbness.

Middle-aged angst is about as uncool as it gets. There's nothing cool about a decaying human with only old age to look forward to whining about their lost youth. The menopause was never "in" and never will be. We look away from such things - middle aged people are supposed to "act their age" (whatever that means), shuffle off into old age without too many complaints, and then die with the minimum interference to the lives of the pretty young things wailing about what a horrible place the world is. We certainly don't want to read books about it (even books that deal with it as their central theme tend to be remembered for the scenery - Lolita for the pre-pubescent sex, Ulysses for the Dublin travel guide), watch blockbuster movies about it (coming soon to a theater near you - "Honey I'm Losing My Hair"), or buy albums about it (unless it's Dylan, and he's had health problems, God love him). And this is Bowie, people. He's expected to be cutting edge. He's supposed to go out, grab the hot new sound (Latin, right now. Hmm, good call, Dave) and fashion it in his own image, to the applause of his fans and the scorn of others.

Given all this, the task Bowie has apparently deliberately undertaken - writing a whole album about middle-aged angst, an angst he doesn't even feel himself - is Mission Damn Near Impossible. The first interesting thing is how he goes about it - simple lyrics, simple hooky vocal melodies, relatively simple musical arrangements, and then the complication in the fine detail. He's done the simple lyrics thing before - remember Low? Be My Wife? Right. The twist is that on Low he apparently personally meant every word he was singing on the album for maybe the only time in his career. On Hours he clearly doesn't (he isn't even a Thursday's Child, for Christ's sake). He says himself that he's thinking himself into the shoes of friends his own age. On songs like Survive, we have Bowie faking it as a pathetic middle-aged half-lifer faking emotion, to quite glorious effect. Throughout his career, Bowie as faker (alien rock God on Ziggy, soul man on Young Americans) has consistently made more interesting music than Bowie as earnest preacher (Tin Machine). Even if there is some personal experience tossed in Hours..., chances are they're at least 10 years old at this stage. The point I'm trying to make here in my usual long-winded fashion is that there's nothing wrong with simple Bowie lyrics if they suit the purpose. They certainly did on Low, and for the most part they do on Hours too. So ultimately, Hours succeeds on the strength of Bowie's music (with co-writer Gabrels) and how it suits their purposes.

THURSDAY'S CHILD

Aka The One They Chose As The Lead-off Single

This deceptively simple song has split reviewers all the way from one of the worst songs Phil Collins never recorded to best Bowie song since Ashes To Ashes. I'm somewhere around the middle on it. When I first heard it, I thought "commercial sub-Young Americans toss". It reminded me of "As The World Falls Down" (it still does). However, the song quickly insinuated its way into my brain. This happened on a lot of the Hours songs, particularly the slower ones. I started thinking they were woeful, but they crept up on me. At the very least, we can say that for once, Bowie and his record company got the single right. It is truly representative of the album (unlike Heart's Filthy Lesson which had everyone I know thinking Outside was an unlistenable industrial record, and Little Wonder that had them all thinking Earthling was hardcore drum n bass). The melody is deceptively simple, and the very first words Bowie sings are straight to the point as Bowie introduces the theme of the album - "All of my life I've tried so hard/Doing my best with what I had/Nothing much happened all the same/Something about me stood apart/A whisper of hope that seemed to fail". Those first few lines also cast our minds back to Bowie's own past in true hyperlink fashion, being so reminiscent of "I've never done good things/Never done bad things/Never did anything out of the blue" from Ashes To Ashes, just as that song cast people in 1980's minds back to Space Oddity. This song seems to deal with an unsatisfactory life in which the only bright spot is love. It's a long way from "All You Need Is Love", but a Hell of a lot more intelligent.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Aka The Classic One

Instantly my favourite, and still so. If the lyrics on Thursday's Child are grim, the lyrics here are almost heart-breaking, and the tortured distorted voice that Bowie uses make it all the more so. Starting in the simple despair employed to good effect on Low, Bowie throws a few "clever" lines in to the middle ("Lived with the best times/Left with the worst") that probably sum up most people's fears of what middle age must be like better than any 9 words ever written in the English language. Musically, the song comes across as a sort of mutant cross between Seven Years In Tibet and Ashes To Ashes. His voice gets progressively weirder and more shaken as the song wends on before cracking up completely at the end, a trick Bowie has utilised to great effect throughout his career. A great Reeves guitar line is at once unsettling and miraculously appropriate. This song is already despised by fans who don't like it when Bowie "messes with his voice".

SURVIVE

Aka Bowie's Favourite One

This is the song that threw me on first listen. It's virtually impossible to approach any new Bowie album with no preconceptions. It's very hard to shake of the views of others, your own expectations, and likes and dislikes in Bowie's back catalogue. Last time, I reviewed Earthling on the basis of a few listens on a dodgy advance cassette copy. I quickly realised that was not the best way to meet a new Bowie album (it compared unfavourably with the old "wait for the pristine CD copy from the store" method), though thankfully it didn't end up ruining my enjoyment of the album and I didn't write anything in my hasty review that makes me cringe unduly now. This time, I decided to stop listening to the snippet sound files Virgin were making available online because they only filled me with a creeping sense of dread (55 second extracts through crappy PC speakers on a start-and-go Internet connection are not the best way for an album to leave a favourable first impression). This time, I decided to politely decline all offers of advance cassette copies. But still, listening to Hours on CD at home for the very first time, it was hard to shake the many unfavourable things I had heard about the album already. Fans who had heard it saying it was like Tonight or Never Let Me Down. Tales of Bowienetters given an advance hearing at their New York bash all nodding and pretending to like it, pulling faces behind backs and then saying it sucked terribly when they were left to themselves. Those horrible sound files on Virgin and Bowienet. So my main hope when I listened to Hours was that it wouldn't be as bad as they all seemed to think it was, that it wouldn't sully a fine legacy. And until I got to Survive, I was thinking "So far so good.". First time around, it sounded like a bad cross between Bowie's most embarrassing Space Oddity folk attempts and his even worse pre-Space Oddity stuff. In particular, the line "I've got ears and eyes and nothing in my life" instantly recalled "When I'm Five". Oh, the horror, the horror! Thankfully, that first impression was wrong. The song grew on me and got a real kickstart when I heard the live versions. Live it does come alive. The melody is subtle in its simplicity and like Thursday's Child, it creeps up on you. The despairing lyrics ("Where's the morning in my life?") and Bowie's delivery make this sound like a near-perfect faker's song, a guy realising he's losing out because he can't invest himself emotionally, trying to fake that emotion, all the time knowing it's hopeless.. And full marks for the opening "Oh my, naked eyes" and the killer line "You're the great mistake I never made".

IF I'M DREAMING MY LIFE

Aka The One Where Scott Walker Sings Hey Jude

The first of the "dream" songs on the album (New Angels Of Promise and The Dreamers are the other two), this sounds very Scott Walker. Lyrically, it lacks the depth of others on the album, though the way Bowie intones "At the wrong time/On the wrong day/All the lights are fading now" should raise the hairs on the back of anyone's neck. I actually like the Hey Jude-ish ending (normally I hate that sort of thing), as it fits nicely into the song. When Bowie starts into that final "Dreaming my life away" segment, I instinctively close my eyes and start drifting away into day dreams. Song hypnosis.

SEVEN

Aka The Popular One

Everyone seems to like this one too, but my first impression was it sucked wimpier than even Survive. However, like Survive, it grew on me. The lines "I've got seven ways to live my life, Or seven ways to die" have been identified by many as the central lines on the album, but they seem a little too optimistic to be truly representative of the main thrust of the album. This song could be the big radio hit Bowie hasn't had in yonks. Everyone who hears it (except my wife) seems to like it instantly. Given the usual breaks that any single needs, this could be the big hit from the album.

WHAT'S REALLY HAPPENING

Aka The One The Fan Wrote

You have to feel sorry for poor Alex Grant (at least as sorry as is possible for someone who destroyed your dreams of writing a song with Bowie and walked off with a pile of loot in the process;)). He wins the contest and gets to be lambasted by reviewers and critics the whole world over. It would be cruel to take a swipe at the lyrics (not to mention smacking of sour grapes), but then I'm a heartless swine. For me, the lyrics ruin this. Strange, because they looked perfectly fine when read as contest winners. But they just don't bear up to repeated listening. In fact, they barely stood up to one listen. I find myself gritting my teeth through this song, trying desperately to concentrate on the music, and it's actually a relief when Bowie gets to the "What's really happening? What tore us apart" bit because as banal as they are, they at least sound like Bowie. Of course, chances are any of the other lyrics the contest entrants would have come up with would have sounded as bad (or worse). It's a shame really, because you get the feeling this could have been a fine song if Bowie had written the lyrics. As it is, I find myself wishing it had been left as an Internet-only release, or that Bowie had put the La-la version on the album.

THE PRETTY THINGS ARE GOING TO HELL

Aka The One For Tin Machine Fans

This one charges along most uncharacteristically for this album, sweeping all before it as Bowie effortlessly manages to fire off some of his best lyrics. "Life's a bit and sometimes you die". Thematically, it seems to update Bowie's "Oh You Pretty Things". When Bowie wrote that song for Hunky Dory, the pretty things stood poised to inherit the Earth, with Bowie as their soothsayer telling their elders that the Ides of March had been and gone, they just didn't know it yet. Now on "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell", Bowie serves precisely the same function for the (one time) pretty things. Your time has been and gone, boys and girls. "The pretty things are going to Hell/They wore it out but they wore it well"). "You're still breathing but you don't know why". "I find you out before you grow old". This song was apparently written very late in the day which may explain why musically it doesn't quite seem to fit on the album (even if lyrically it does). For this reason, despite being a very strong song, you have to question the wisdom of releasing it as a single, at least first or second. Bowie's first and second singles from recent albums have been too schizo for their own good. People like the first single but the second one comes along and it's totally different and they don't like it (the average person having a very limited range of taste) so they think "Oh, the first single was good but the rest of the album must be crap if the second single is anything to go by". Or they like the second single but think "It's probably the only decent track on the album. The first single was crap". Heart's Filthy Lesson had people I know who were intending to buy Outside but never did thinking Outside was some sort of hard industrial noisefest sound, then Strangers When We Meet comes out with a much softer sound to confuse the issue, and to cap it all off, the third single is the hard-remixed-to-be-soft Hallo Spaceboy. Little Wonder has people thinking Earthling is a drum n bass album, then Dead Man Walking makes them think it's got a more retro almost discoish sound. By going after too many market segments, you end up falling between different stools and missing them all. So Survive or Seven may prove to be a better follow-up to build on the favourable impression Thursday's Child left on a lot of people.

NEW ANGELS OF PROMISE

Aka The Omnikron One

This is the song that was premiered at the Omnikron press conference, and is the song most obviously tied into that game. It's the second of the three "dream" songs and musically has a dream-like (vaguely nightmarish) quality. It's easy to imagine that this song works better in the context of the game than it does on the album. The weird vocal effects are nice.

BRILLIANT ADVENTURE

Aka The One For Fans Of Sides 2 of Low And Heroes

This seems to be an obvious nod back to the Berlin instrumentals, but doesn't quite live up to the task. Bowie did this kind of thing better on The Buddha Of Suburbia.

THE DREAMERS

Aka The One For 1. Outside Fans

This is reminiscent of stuff like Small Plot Of Land and The Motel on 1. Outside, and this is probably why that although it made little impression on the first few listens, I felt confident that it would become my favourite track on the album after more listens. In fact, although it did grow on me, it also started to grow off me later, and I now think it's one of the weaker songs on the album. I think maybe one of the bonus tracks on the Thursday's Child single, especially We Shall All Go To Town on No One Calls, might have served the task better. M/p>

CONCLUSION

There are many reasons to hate Hours... (none of them particularly good ones). Some fans of 1. Outside will hate it because it's not 2. Contamination. Fans of Earthling may despair at its apparent retreat from the innovative sound of that album. The electronica puritans will hold their hands up in horror at the guitars (some of them....ACOUSTIC!). Younger fans who grooved to the whole art-cycle-murder concept of Outside and spent joyful hours wondering what it all meant, and were carried along by the pulsating beats on Earthling, may wonder how they could ever relate to an album about middle-aged angst that sounds so downbeat and middle-aged. The bottom line is that Bowie is doing the one thing he can always be relied to do - confounding fans and critics alike. Anyone who damns a Bowie album for the album it is not misses the central point of Bowie.

There are also many reasons to love Hours..., many of them good. That voice - the best in modern music - has seldom been better, more versatile or more to the point. The lyrics are clever without being clever-clever, and point back to the artful simplicity of Low. The melodies are as memorable as Bowie has written in yonks. Part of the reason I probably won't feel the need to play Hours as compulsively as I did the last three albums is that the songs play readily in my mind after just a few listens. They appear in my thoughts, unexpected and unannounced, in a way that hasn't happened since I discovered Scary Monsters. Bowie's wonderful natural talent for songwriting - the way he can so effortlessly combine lyric and melody in a synergy nobody else can apparently master - remains undimmed by the years, the wealth and the happiness of his personal life. Bowie is still at his best when he sings of alienation, even if he no longer feels it himself. And while Hours... has the potential to be one of those Bowie albums that alienates a significant portion of his existing fanbase, that's not to say there isn't an audience for this album beyond those of us who have been Bowie fans for long enough to have come through even more dramatic shifts of focus. It's not just mid-life menopausers that this album should strike a chord with - those twentysomethings reconciling themselves to the world not being their oyster and being a much duller place than they imagined may also recognise the symptoms of their malaise.

While I think the songs on Hours... are good enough to make this a great album, I doubt that in years to come it will be remembered as a classic Bowie album, or that it will even attract as many ardent "best thing he's ever done" admirers as 1. Outside and Earthling did. It's almost like the Lodger to 1. Outside's Low and Earthling's Heroes. The central position Bowie occupies in our culture has never been based on his ability to keep churning out top tunes like most of those on Hours. Even his remarkable longevity is based less on consistency and more on the ability to keep making fresh starts. There's a definite feeling of marking time on this album. With the most fragmented fanbase of any artist ever, he seems to be covering a lot of bases - a few songs for the Hunky Dory crowd, one for the Tin Machine fans, one for Outside lovers, one for the Berlin instrumentalists and so on. "None of you will love this as much as your favourite albums", he seems to be saying, "But hopefully there's enough here to keep you interested". There is a nagging feeling that Hours is less than a sum of its parts. Maybe this is just my own prejudice and preference for Bowie to be reaching too high too fast, not afraid to fall gloriously, rather than biding his time, hedging his bets and covering all the bases.

On a scale of 1 (Never Let Me Down) to 10 (Low) for Bowie albums, I would give Outside an 8.5 even though lots of the songs are clearly sub-standard and would sound horrible on just about any other Bowie album. Nevertheless, Outside as a whole adds up to something splendid. Similarly, The Buddha Of Suburbia warrants a 9 from me as more than the sum of its components, while the components on Earthling are so good (I still feel this album contains the absolute 90s peak of Bowie's songwriting) they almost add up to 9.5. On Hours..., the feeling is that as uniformly good to excellent as the songs are, the album as a whole only adds up to about an 8.

-- Dara O'Kearney

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This document last updated Tuesday, 09-Nov-1999 10:14:00 EST
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