Spike Magazine - September 1999
Time Takes A Cigarette...
Jake Eyers finds David Bowie still playing with paradoxes in his introspective new opus 'hours...'
The real problem people have with David Bowie these days is contextualising him. Most of us under 35 see his previous body of work as a whole, complete with its mythology and its deserved place in the history of the twentieth century, as well as the now cliched dismissal of anything
produced after 1983. It has become a media stock in trade to review his new album by saying, "his best album since 1983." But what does this actually mean?
Bowie himself readily admits (perhaps conveniently) that he has never been an original thinker. He uses whatever he finds interesting an involves himself in it totally. At this time the availability of the media and sources of inspiration have never been wider or more readily available, this was certainly not the case thirty years ago. Maybe Bowie is a victim of his own success in that the pace of exposure is now so fast, it is impossible for anyone to keep up, let alone be one step ahead.
Bowie characteristically makes the whole process extremely difficult. On one hand he constantly expunges his own past, most notably in the Sound + Vision tour of 1990 where he performed his greatest hits for supposedly the 'last time.' Yet in interviews and, more importantly, his music, he constantly draws on his back catalogue and refers to his own influence. For 'hours...' he states that he listened to nothing but his own records for the nine months prior to recording.
The opening track 'Thursday's Child,' is a difficult affair having claustrophobic backing vocals and saccharine production. However it is the perfect exponent of two elements of this album that make it more complex and rewarding than a superficial listen would seem. The album is basically founded on two paradoxes, an old Bowie trick. Throughout the album the production is far more lush and sweeping that on any recent release. However beneath this Bowie is providing us with his most introspective and dysfunctional set of songs for ages. His lyrics drip remorse, regret, mistakes and failure, almost unremittingly. The second paradox is that this is obviously at odds with Bowie's own circumstances. He genuinely seems happier with his life than at any other time in his before. Seen in this context the songs are given, not a theatricality, but a sense of performance that lends them a tension absent in recent times.
The main reason that this succeeds is that his vocal performances throughout are excellent, crossing his entire repertoire and yet retaining a coherence before unseen. 'Thursdays Child' explains that he has been 'trying so hard' and yet 'nothing happened all the same.' He sings ' lucky old sun is in my sky' sounding utterly unconvinced. The key lyric, possibly to the whole album is ,'Seeing my past to let it go.' This is probably is as close to a manifesto that Bowie has produced for his recent work. Is he really letting go ? Probably not but it provides a nice viewpoint.
The first standout track is "Something In The Air", containing one of Bowie's most cutting, cold lyrics. Describing the break-up of a relationship it becomes apparent that the singer is attempting to emotionally remove himself, 'it feels like we never had a chance/Don't look me in the eye.' Followed by 'this room is just an empty space/I guess we lived it out' When he 'can't think of a thing to say,' the song breaks into an epic guitar and strings led spiralling refrain, allowing Bowie to vocally swoop in a way that sends shivers down the spine. "Lived with the best times/left with worst, I've danced with you too long/Nothing left to say."
He spins into increasingly distorted and desperate vocals eventually screaming about the 'sentence of our lives,' and how he 'used the things we had,' to obtain ,'what we want/we lost each other on the way...' Musically this builds into an epic maelstrom of Low-style saxophone and guitar squeakings before suddenly dying out.
"Survive" is easily the simplest and sweetest melody and lyric Bowie had written for a very long time. The interesting thing is that the song is actually held together by Gabrels' guitar, rather than distorted. The guitar seems to bubble along to Bowie's South London drawl as it slips into a sequence pure Anthony Newley, 'Brutal boys/All snowy white/Razzle dazzle gloves/Every night.' [sic 'Beatle boys/All snowy white/Razzle dazzle clubs/Every night'] Quite definitely a classic Bowie track (shit, I've used the c-word, I promised I wouldn't.)
'If I'm Dreaming All My Life" was the track I had the most problems with at the beginning. Maybe it just takes a while for me to believe my own Bowie rhetoric, but it is quite good really. My hesitancy is two fold, it reminds me of Tin Machine and it seems like three songs tagged together. An utterly brooding Bowie vocal suddenly turns into an alarmingly jaunty riff. However Bowie's vocal is the key, he basically does a quick run-through of all his styles in seven minutes. Once you can cope with this its really rather fun. It also emphasises the point that apart from "Thursdays Child" Bowie does all his own backing vocals and re-emphasises how inconsistent the opening track is with the rest of the album in many ways.
The acoustic led "Seven", a song of regret about one's family finishes off the first half of the album. Already there is enough to make most people happy, but after this the whole key is shifted up a gear. Introspection remains but suddenly decides to play the coup of using Bowie's past in new and more interesting ways than ever before. The change is held together by the song "What's Really Happening". It is a tart of song like nothing since the glam rock days. A set of lyrics written by an Internet competition winner in a burlesque Bowie style, sung by the man himself in a sub 1973 style, backed up by a Reeves Gabrels pastiche of Mick Ronson... This playing around with references and contexts gives Bowie a freedom to do things he couldn't possibly get away with otherwise. And mighty fine it is too.
"The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell" as has often been said is a mass of references in itself (Hunky Dory, Pin Ups, Aladdin Sane), before you even get beyond the title. It's the greatest example of Bowie's appropriation with addition yet. Pure Pixies (I'm told I'm gravely mistaken with that reference, but what the hell), glam rock with a little sarcastic grunge.
It's by far Bowie's most self-confident lyric since the eighties. He is supposedly referring to the pretty things of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies and Aladdin Sane. He's basically cutting about those dilettantes who feel like they are 'reaching the very edge.' What makes it great is not just Bowie using his best English-Robotic voice, but the absolute venom with which he makes you realise he's seen it all before. He thus becomes the Master of Ceremonies; ' I am the Dragon / I am the Drug / You're still breathing but you don't know why' For me one of the most telling lyrics is 'They wore it out but they wore it well', perchance talking about his own drug-induced years of inspiration.
I suspect many people will have difficulties with 'New Angels of Promise', but for me it is very important. Quite obviously written for the soundtrack of the forthcoming Eidos computer game Omikron (in which Bowie is a main gaming character), it's Bowie take on the future. As a song it starts with a Japanese influenced flute before changing into an epic, futuristic song. Bowie sounds like "Heroes" combines with Outside with a little New Romantic thrown in. And that is the point. In the most structurally complex song since the Berlin records he successfully combines his past with his latest music styles whilst throwing in that little bit of appropriated flotsam just to keep things off balance. The song slinks its way through a Lodger-esque fade out, ending with an odd flute refrain. Quite simply the strongest Bowie track for decades.
The next song is an instrumental as if almost to compound the Eno-esque quality of the previous track. It uses a koto (as on "Heroes"). It also has the darkest background since 'Wishful Beginnings' from Outside (likened to a WaxTrax release at the time). Memories of the Scary Monsters B-side 'Crystal Japan' also spring to mind. The album ends with the equally strange 'The Dreamers'. Not as convincing as 'New Angels' is still has a bass heavy tune, full with of synths on top of a distinctly odd three note repeated refrain as a hook. Nothing commercial here. The lyrics are again about decline and guilt with a distorted treatment. Bowie eventually allows his voice to soar above everything else lending a coherent theme that could have otherwise lost a song. The album ends with this, so differently from how it began, almost leaving the listener confused, but repeated listening shows the cohesion I've already alluded to.
I've always been of the opinion that Bowie will produce at least one more great classic album. Before writing this review the Internet-ordered re-issue of his back-catalogue arrived on my doorstep. I initially refrained from listening less it should cloud my judgement - but then I did. People rarely produce an album as good as Diamond Dogs or Station To Station in a lifetime. Bowie produced about five in ten years. Each album most people could have based careers on.
As Melody maker editor Steve Sutherland once said, "We should expect nothing more from this man given what he's given us." True, but that's not enough for me. So - is this the next classic Bowie album. Well I know what my heart wants to say, but would I be telling the truth? Probably.
TO CLOSE WINDOW