Howdy Pop Pickers
And so another month, another random Bowie album selected for a listen. It is also, look you see, one again from the 90s in the form of Hours, or if you like (and David did for this is how it appears on the album cover ‘hours…..’.
Just how random has been my selection of this record? Partial. I’ve been playing it a bit of late as it is one I had considered to be a “forgotten” record. It was a Bowie release that came along but very nearly got blanketed out by other Bowie releases. Also, as I was doing this, my good friend Jonathan mentioned in passing that he had listened to it recently. Some of his observations on things he heard shall be included.
Fantastic facts first? Surely. It is, by the widely accepted understanding of his discography, the 21st studio album by Bowie. By releasing it in 1999 it marks his final album released in the 20th century, and perfectly rounds off his obsession with releasing records only during odd numbered years during the 1990s.
There are firsts and lasts to this record. Ostensibly the record stemmed from Bowie and Reeves Gabrels (yes, that one off of Tin Machine) creating a soundtrack for a long forgotten computer game called Omikron, one in which Bowie as a character featured, no less. As part of Bowie embracing the modern and the new, it was also the first album (from a major artist on a major label) to be sold as a digital release, with it being available to buy and download (presumably off the much missed bowie.net service) some two weeks before the physical release. Impressive, when you consider this was all before iTunes etc, and that portable mp3 players did not at this stage exist as we know them now, if at all. So far as I am aware, this was the last time that Bowie worked with Reeves Gabrels – if so a spectacular way to bow out, as each song is credited as being written by both of them.
Should you be in a rush, the question you have right now is of whether this record is any good or not. The answer to that is yes, no, maybe. As I mentioned earlier on it feels like quite a casual if not anonymous release, one which is better than the end of deal, contractual obligations release you might assume but also not particularly outstanding. In many respects the best way to describe this record is as a distraction. Let’s see if I can back that up.
This record came along a relatively short space of time after the Earthling shenanigans, an experience many fans were still healing the scars from. We will get to Earthling in detail one day, so long as I keep doing this, but for now it’s safe to say that record was one which “surprised” fans, what with David apparently saying “look kids I am totally down on this drum and bass thing” whilst terrifying his usual audience with some particularly screeching aggression.
Strangely the aggressive ways of Earthling remain in ‘hours….’, but they are masked by distraction. The two best known singles off of the record, Thursday’s Child and Seven, are musically soft, quasi-acoustic affairs. Both are quite peaceful sounding and give a sense of being uplifting, which underlines the distraction as lyrically they are quite dark.
Neither of these singles reflects the album entire in any sort of proper representative way, in truth. It’s a far more edgier rock record that the instrumentation of those two let on. Can I draw a parallel to that? Sure. Imagine about 10 years before ‘hours…’, or if you like 30 years ago, you happened to hear that nice song about a girl whose eyes seemed to remind of childhood memories, hiding from thunder and rain etc, and so went off, bought the album that the song (Sweet Child O Mine) was off and then you got to hear things like You’re Crazy, Out To Get Me, Mr Brownstone, My Michelle, etc.
OK, fine, so the singles might not reflect the album as such, but is the music on the album as it is any good? Yes, in a decidedly distracted average way. There are some amazing highlights – well, the two singles plus Something In The Air plus The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell – but they are punctured by if not quite average then somewhat anonymous feeling songs.
And yes, indeed. Something In The Air ended up on the soundtrack of the film adaptation of American Psycho, despite the fact that Bowie was one of the few musicians not to get a mention in the novel. Not that I recall, at the least. Been a while since I read it and frankly I do not feel emotionally stable enough to read it again; now or possibly ever.
A big distraction is the fact that this album might well have gotten away with calling itself The Borrowers. Whilst all musicians borrow from all others in some form or another, and many have borrowed off of Bowie, this record is remarkable in how much of it sounds like other things Bowie might have heard in passing. If you play virtually any song off the record you can detect moments from songs by other artists.
With the help of my friend Jonathan, here’s some examples of what I am speaking about in that last bit. The instrumental break on Thursday’s Child sounds similar to Something In The Air by Thunderclap Newman, something Bowie perhaps acknowledges by doing a song of that name on the album too. The closing track, The Dreamers, sounds like something we think is a Kate Bush song but can’t quite place. Most brazenly, What’s Really Happening isn’t really much more than You Keep Me Hanging On by Kim Wilde slowed down a bit and with some new words thrown over.
This “borrowing” does become a big distraction, for once you hear it you can’t really unhear it, so to speak. It kind of split the critics, as those who didn’t go for the trusted “best and most important record since Scary Monsters” approach did indicate that this record was somewhat embarrassing for someone of Bowie’s talents. Me, as I have said, I sit somewhere in the middle of those two reviews with this record.
Bowie himself kind of stole the thunder of ‘hours….’ by sanctioning the issuing of “Bowie At The Beeb” less than a year after the album release. The 2 CD look at his BBC performances between 68 and 72 was accompanied by a stunning concert he did in June 2000 for the same broadcasting outfit. The magnificence of this set really distracted me from remembering that ‘hours….’ even existed.
Was anything particularly missed by ‘hours…’ getting distracted into relatively obscurity by everyone in general and the artist in particular? For sure. There was lots of conversation to be had with this that never really got discussed. Such as? The cover, for a start. Is that the younger yet now obviously elder long haired early 70s Bowie from Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory laying the petulant child of 1. Outside and Earthling to rest? Was the idea of styling the album name ‘hours….’ a very deliberate way to echo the way the song and album “heroes” was pressed?
For those of us who quite liked Tin Machine, though, the question is whether or not this record is any indication of just what exactly a third album by that band might have sounded like. One of the more commonly accepted musical reasons for the band splitting was that whilst the brothers Sales wished to press a harder, more edgy sound, Bowie and Gabrels wish to pursue a more melodic, commercially accessible form of music. Elements of ‘hours…’ hint at this, for although there’s a distinct rock edge to many numbers you couldn’t imagine the brothers Sales would be satisfied playing on them.
Do you, the casual Bowie fan exploring his works, bother to seek out this record in any great hurry? No. Anonymous and distracted from it may very well be, but it’s sadly no lost masterpiece or forgotten classic. As much as I may like some of the non-singles tracks, I would be sure the singles feature on the post-2000s “best of” sets, and in essential terms they are all you really need to know from the record.
That said, no this is not a record to be avoided all together. It’s just not as vital to hear as, say, all the ones he did in the 70s, some of the ones he did in the 80s, all bar one of the ones from the 90s and none of the 00s or 10s. Right, I’ve type that and feel bad, because it makes the album sound worse than it is.
Hmn, perhaps it is best I end this look at ‘hours….’, then. Ultimately the record, both in terms of the music and presentation, poses many interesting questions, but just gets too damned distracted to answer them.
What next? Who knows. I don’t at this stage, in truth. But I will think of something, and if matters such as time and health allow, I will write more. Until, then, then,
Be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!