[9 April 2004]
Of all the figures in the rock pantheon, perhaps none have had a career as interesting as that of David Bowie. After struggling to make a mark as a mod, he tried reinventing himself as a campy folksinger, hard-rocking androgyne, and eclectic singer-songwriter in the course of three albums before latching onto glam just as it was exploding. His on-and-off friend Marc Bolan had shaped the genre, but it was Bowie who blew it up to gigantic proportions, and he who made some inroads into America where Bolan himself had failed. The move, successful though it was, opened Bowie to accusations of being a trend-hopper, a charge that has haunted him throughout his long career. During the ‘70s, though, he was on such an unbelievable roll that it hardly mattered. He revived Mott the Hoople with his “All the Young Dudes”, produced the Stooges’ Raw Power and later relaunched a faltering Iggy with two albums’ worth of production and co-writing, brought Lou Reed back from his post-Velvets depths, and still found the time to crank out ten strong-to-classic albums of his own.
Such a string of winners requires a pantload of talent, but in Bowie’s case, it also took a mountain of cocaine, and once he had sobered up and made a fine summarizing statement with Scary Monsters, he began one of the more dire descents in rock. Though his critical laurels stopped arriving with Let’s Dance, the public made it a smash, thus ensuring that even as the quality of his work declined, it would be enough of a commercial viability that the whole world could see just how washed up he had become. Tonight and Never Let Me Down turned into the two harshest spankings of his career, and by the end of the ‘80s, it seemed as if Bowie might just fade away quietly, sparing himself any further embarrassments.
For better or for worse, it was not to be. Beginning with 1993’s Black Tie White Noise, he began scraping his way back, although this album and the two that followed, Outside and Earthling, came with equal parts vigor and staleness, eagerly reaching for trends that the youngsters were already abandoning. Finally, in 1999, he seemed to realize that there was more room in the world for vintage Bowie than second-rate Trent Reznor. The result was Hours, the first of what should be known as the best-since-Scary-Monsters trilogy. As that implies, Hours was seen as a comeback effort, and though everything else Bowie had done in the ‘90s was greeted as such, Hours was the first time the claim was taken with relative seriousness. Both of the record’s follow-ups, Heathen and Reality won ever more earnest praise, so the recent re-release of Hours provides a nice opportunity to see whether this should mark the spot of Bowie’s resurgence or if it was just wishful thinking.
From a stylistic standpoint, Hours makes a break with the recent past, announcing on its cover that Bowie was laying to rest his recent incarnation as the coolest geezer on the block and demonstrating with its substance that he wasn’t afraid to be himself again after two decades of distractions from that goal. It was somewhat hip and modern, but it had its antecedents in Bowie’s illustrious past. At long last, he was borrowing from himself rather than Bolan, Eno, or Reznor. The comfort of the resulting sound and—let it be said—the relief that this was not Earthling, pt. 2 made Hours a welcome sound in 1999.
Five years later, it seems premature to re-release this album as a classic worthy of such treatment when it’s actually just luggage Bowie took with him when he left Virgin for Columbia. Bonus material is limited to remixes and different versions of tracks already on the album, one of the more regrettable practices in the music business. Sound quality was good enough already, and if there’s been any improvement, it’s negligible. In short, the package hasn’t been sweetened enough to improve its stature beyond what it was in ‘99, and the passage of time and release of two better albums leaves Hours in the tough position of being historically auspicious but musically redundant.