Is this Bowie’s most forgettable album? I think it unquestionably is. Even Pin Ups and Never Let Me Down are less forgettable (for different reasons), but ‘hours…’ plays like a live acoustic concert more than a proper new David Bowie album.
I’ve listened to this album a few different ways, and so my opinion on it has changed a bit. First, I listened to it on my computer speakers after I finished writing about Earthling, and I limped to the end of it. Then, I listened to it taking the subway the day before yesterday, and I made it two songs in before I switched to listening to Brian Eno’s Another Green World. Then I listened to it yesterday a little and started warming to it, then again last night and thought, “wait, am I actually liking this?” and now I’m listening to it again and finding it easier to discover what I like about it. To be honest, it was the same situation with Never Let Me Down.
‘hours…’ finds Bowie looking to his past similar to Buddha of Suburbia did, but here he looks a little further, landing his sights on Hunky Dory. Here, he adopts a more confessional singer-songwriter role, dons his long blond Hunky Dory hair, and he plays takes a more intimate and reflective tone in his music. I read that after Earthling, his guitarist and songwriting collaborator Reeves Gabrels wanted to make a sequel to Earthling similar to how Bowie had made Aladdin Sane as like a sequel to Ziggy Stardust, but Bowie’s whims were more important than following a narrative. It was the turn of the century, and Bowie was mellowing out as his age caught up with him.
Sonically, this mirrors Beck’s musical narrative. This might be just me looking back and searching for similarities, but Beck had just done his Odelay to Mutations change, and just a few months after Bowie’s ‘hours…’, he would release Midnite Vultures which takes big inspiration (and a hook) from David Bowie. I can’t find if they ever met, but Beck obviously admired him, and Bowie’s The Next Day look is also really similar to Beck’s Morning Phase look. But that’s all speculation!
Buddha of Suburbia showed Bowie’s interest in the past and how to reformat it for the future, and he makes good on the promise of that record with ‘hours…’, except it’s done in completely the wrong way. ‘hours…’ is an album fixed firmly in the present looking back, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it comes off as too safe and not all that entertaining for me. This was the end of the millennium, so it’s understandable that Bowie would be feeling reflective, so in a way it’s a necessary album, but Bowie was always at his best when he was facing the future. In a way, he was still doing that, but more in marketing than in sound. He was writing these songs for a video game and one of the songs had a lyric contest and a live webcast, but to be honest, that’s not very interesting.
The album starts off on a semi-weak note. Thursday’s Child sets the tone for the album, and while the chorus is pretty cheesy, the combination of hip-hop beats, female background singers, and the synths are pretty if a little underwhelming. The next run of songs from Something’s in the Air through Seven are a whole lot stronger, lyrically and sonically. I like the hesitant guitar parts of Something’s in the Air and Bowie’s forced vocals. The chord change for the chorus is really unexpected, and I love how Bowie holds the words so long and in such a tortured voice. Survive also has a great if predictable chord change in the chorus, and it’s the most Hunky Dory-ish song on the album. I like the subtle but clanky percussion (maybe it’s an electronic loop actual) the most. It’s really quiet, but it sounds so good. If I’m Dreaming My Life predicts Heathen’s sound really well, though it doesn’t compare to any song on that album. It’s a pained seven minutes lament, and I like the deep vocals Bowie does and the heavier feel of it. The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell, an Iggy Pop reference, tries to recreate that heaviness, but it doesn’t work at all and comes off thin and fake; but If I’m Dreaming My Life owns that sound pretty well.
I read that Bowie wanted the songs to sound like something anyone could play, so he wanted to avoid the ways of making Earthling and 1. Outside, focusing on simple songwriting that would let him croon about the past without being too distracted. I think Seven captures that feel the best. It’s simple but lovely, and if there’s any song that best represents what Bowie wanted to make with this album, it’s this one. The slidey guitar is also really lovely, evoking the lyrical content really well of feeling left behind.
The album middles after that, but it ends with a pretty decent final three songs. The New Angels of Promise takes a little of the heaviness and translates it into an otherworldliness, aided by an exotic riff on flute and Bowie doing some weird vocals wailing “we despair” as the angels descend. It’s very much linked to the world of Ziggy Stardust and the Diamond Dogs lyrically. It segues well into Brilliant Adventure, an oriental instrumental calling back to the likes of Moss Garden. It’s nice, but it definitely lacks the intrigue that Moss Garden had and kinda comes off as lazy. The Dreamers has a similar problem, sounding more like someone trying to impersonate Bowie, and while it’s still one of the more interesting songs on the album, it’s still not great. The opening is interesting with the percussion and the booming synth brass, but the song lacks an energy that it feels like it should have. It, like a lot of songs on the album, have painfully obvious lyrics that are more self-parody than sincerity.
I think Never Let Me Down and ‘hours…’ prove that even a musical genius needs to take a step back after a bit of non-stop creation to recuperate. They’re similar in that they’re decent. Honestly, neither of them are really unlistenable, but they’re lacking something, an energy, a sincerity. At least in the case of ‘hours…’ it’s in preparation for some really great and inspired takes on nostalgia-bating.