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Week 26 | “hours…” (1999)

Never afraid to change his musical style or appearance, by 1999 Bowie had fully embraced his “chameleon” image. Four of his previous six albums — the two Tin Machine albums, Outside and Earthling— had a hard edge. “hours…” (that’s how the album name appears— lower case, in quotes, followed by an ellipsis) marks a turn toward slower, softer sound that he would only occasionally stray from on his remaining studio albums. Bowie signals the shift starting with the album cover with the image of his (then) current, softer persona holding, Pieta-style, an exhausted (or dead) version of his previous manifestation. The change itself had become the selling point.

The double-image of Bowie on the cover is not the cover’s, or the album’s only gimmick. My version of the album cover is holographic (the printing technique is called, “lenticular”). Although this wouldn’t have been obvious at the time, it is also the last Bowie studio album cover featuring a photograph of his face (in this case, two photographs). “hours…” was the first album, at least by a major artist, to be debuted on-line. It contains a song, “What’s really happening,” that contains lines written by a fan who won a contest. Several of the songs are adapted from the soundtrack to a video game. Another song, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” makes an overt reference to Bowie’s past (its actually his third “pretty thing” song).

All of this might be a deliberate distraction from the music itself. The music is satisfactory but not exceptional. At the time, it was for me the second disappointment in a row. I particularly liked Bowie’s 1995 album, Outside, and was frustrated that the drum & bass oriented Earthling went in a different direction. Bowie would shift styles from album to album during the 1990s. This is a contrast to most of the rest of his career, where he’d ride a style for a few albums before making a shift. But in the 90s, we’d get a version of Bowie for about two years at a time before a new album and new style. This one seemed to be a concession to age— he turned 50 while in a demonic persona phase. That was on the verge of being silly for a 50-year-old. Now was time for a mellow Bowie. Bowie, who once said that wearing jeans and a tee-shirt would have been as artificial for him as his Ziggy-era makeup (which for Bowie was not necessarily a bad thing), was essentially wearing jeans and a tee-shirt (or a sweatshirt anyway).

I still haven’t come to the music. The music definitely has high points. I think songs like “Thursday’s Child,” “Survive,” and “Seven” had the potential of sticking around Bowie’s concert playlist, but he seems to have dropped them, and everything else from the album by the time he was touring to support his next album, the superior, Heathen. Several of the other songs are flawed— “If I’m Dreaming My Life” and “The Dreamers” are too long and plodding. “What’s Really Happening” is too cute.

I have written before about “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” that it marks the end of the cycle that began with “Oh, You Pretty Things,” in which Bowie celebrates debauchery, through, Tin Machine’s “Pretty Thing” which reflects a more harmful degeneration. This last song of the cycle leaves little to interpret — “they wore it out, but they wore it well.” The sentiment is reminiscent of yet another song— “Teenage Wildlife,” in which Bowie decries fads that had been milked past the point of being interesting with the line, “same old thing, in brand new drag comes sweeping into view.” So Bowie has something to say here. He is explaining why fans hungering for more of the same aren’t getting it. But I don’t know how much else he figured out that he wanted to get out, which might account for all the distractions.

One thing Bowie got wrong with this album is what emerging technology was going to mean for music. I think the contest that produced the fan-written lyric had an online component. Certainly the online release of the album was a minor milestone. But Bowie would come to figure out, with The Next Day, 14 years later, that the most consequential “new thing” was the playlist. “hours…” holds together as an album. When I listen to it, is usually is as a complete album. But The Next Day is more a collection of songs, not necessarily linked together in any meaningful way. Perfect for playlists and shuffle. But “hours…” (maybe not coincidentally also named for a unit of time) is more of a dead end.

Nearly twenty years after its release, I like “hours…”. Its a flawed work, but its not bad. And as frustrating as it was at the time, I miss the biennial Bowie. Still, the albums gets a little lost in history because it is both preceded and followed by stronger works.

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