I’ve thought for a while that Bowie’s 1999 album, hours…, is much better than I had thought of it for its first two decades of existence. It’s not especially well-regarded by fans and seemed like an enormous drop-off following the 1. Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997). (Just listing those dates brings me back to the time of a new Bowie album every two years…)
After two intense and loud albums, Bowie seemed exhausted by the time he got to hours… The title isn’t even capitalized. The cover art features a softer-featured Bowie holding an exhausted, or dead version of himself as he had appeared in his last incarnation. The image recalls the Pieta. “Hours…” is also the first album Bowie recorded since turning 50. Overall, the effort reflects a concession from Bowie that he was long past the point of being a young person’s rockstar. Much of what he’d address for the remainder of his career had to do with aging, mortality and reflection.
Part of the reason hours… doesn’t stand out is that Bowie would do what he tries here better in subsequent albums. Hours… is clunky and contains distractions. I think it’s easier upon first listen to focus on “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” and “What’s Really Happening” than the songs that are really at the heart of the album: “Seven;” “Survive” and “Thursday’s Child.” These are quieter, less conspicuous songs that contain their own devices of misdirection, but I actually think they are fairly proud reflections on middle age (which, in the process, set the context for the album as a whole).
“Thursday’s Child” sets the agenda, but Bowie doesn’t want to make it too obvious. The song’s great red herring is its title and chorus. What does “Thursday’s Child” mean? There’s probably an answer to that question, but whatever that answer might be is of secondary importance to the other lyrics, which reveal what was on Bowie’s mind:
All of my life I’ve tried so hard
Doing my best with what I had
Nothing much happened all the same
If Bowie was consistent about one thing, it was that he was never satisfied with what he had already done. Part of his reason for changing styles so frequently is not just because he’d get bored and recognized that whatever manifestation he found himself in had an expiration date, but that he just wasn’t happy with what he had already done. This is the harshest self-critique I can think of in music. He’s saying nothing he’s done to this point has amounted to much. And he’s saying it at the very beginning of his new album. So why keep listening?
Well, he’s not quite ready to answer that question. First he acknowledges that he has potential, even though that potential was never fully realized: “Something about me stood apart; A whisper of hope that seemed to fail.”
But if Bowie was rarely satisfied with his own output, he also held on to the belief that it was worth it to push himself. A seldom-noticed thread in some of Bowie’s songs is an expression first articulated in “Queen Bitch” (1970), that “I can do better than that.”
And he makes that point again in “Thursday’s Child”:
Now that I’ve really got a chance
Everything’s falling into place
Seeing my past to let it go
This is what we guys in our 50s do— we reflect on our past. We tell war stories. Bowie would do this for much of the rest of his career, with reflective and sometimes self-referential songs. But here he’s saying that reflection can be productive if used in an exercise of letting go. He doesn’t want to return to what worked— he won’t even acknowledge that something did work. He’s saying the way to go forward is to consciously let go of the past.
So that’s the setup for the album, right there. Just about everything that comes after is reflective and regretful about the past. The songs either do that, or the they take a dim view of the present. And I can explain how, but I’m going to leave that to future blogs entries.
This point of this one is to highlight how this one sequence of lines encapsulates Bowie’s whole approach to work and, probably, life. Never rest on your past successes— don’t even acknowledge them as successes. But never forget that you can do more and better. Everything is falling into place.
I like this acoustic cover by Irish singer Emma Hynes. Stripped of excess instrumental elements and a chorus, the lyrics in this version are much clearer than in Bowie’s original. I suspect that Bowie wanted to mask what he was saying at least a little— give us something to think about. This singer doesn’t share that agenda. You actually get a better sense of what the song is about here.