Bowie Looks Back?

Although the vocals are strong, the quality of the songwriting here is inconsistent.

What to do when you're rock 'n' roll's original chameleon, having explored

myriad fascinating sexual personae and accompanying musical styles while

Madonna was still in her training bra? How to be continually innovative

in a medium that too often lends itself to banality and repetition? These

are questions that have plagued David Bowie since he began pondering the

follow-up to Let's Dance, his last truly Zeitgeist-nailing

album that ushered in the age of the yuppie and the triumph of Western

capitalism at the dawn of the 1980s.

Let's Dance was, in the short term, a great career move, but it

has ultimately proven to be an albatross around Bowie's neck, and it wasn't

until Outside (1995) — a collaboration with Brian Eno —

that the singer finally got control of his muse again. A tour with Nine

Inch Nails' Trent Reznor showed that Bowie, unlike so many of his

contemporaries, still possesses an edge, and Earthling (1997) was

a worthy follow-up, if at times leaning too heavily on faddish club trends

like "jungle" merely to prove a point. On both Outside and

Earthling, Bowie was experimenting again, shaking things up, and

in the tedious latter stages of the 1990s, this was surely a good thing.

Leave it to the contrary Bowie, then, to make his final statement of the

millennium on his latest, 'hours . . .', by eschewing radical

innovation and instead concentrating on the past. On 'hours . . .',

we find the singer taking an inventory of his past, especially his musical

past, essaying various former Bowiestyles with varying results. This is

a singer/ songwriter's album, which means that it sinks or swims on the

strengths of Bowie's singing (still fine after all these wild and crazy

years) and his songwriting (here, hit and miss).

"Thursday's Child" (RealAudio

excerpt), the lead-off number, shows that Bowie can still croon

an ethereal pop tune better than the best of 'em, with the singer offering

up a survey of a life and career he seemingly feels has fallen short of

the mark ("All of my life, I tried so hard/ doing the best with what I

had/ nothing much happened all the same"). That is, if we can really

believe this song and the others on 'hours . . . ' to be

autobiographical. Nothing much has happened in Bowie's life? Where

does that leave the rest of us, then?

Nevertheless, 'hours . . .' will most likely be heard as Bowie

Being Confessional, but don't expect overt soul-bearing a la erstwhile

Bowiepal Iggy Pop's latest flawed effort. Dave hints at various

things, but the lyrics often remain vague and general, leaving it to

guitarist and co-producer Reeves Gabrels to liven up the proceedings, as

he does on the dramatic "Something In The Air" (RealAudio

excerpt), the ominous "New Angels of Promise" and "I'm Dreaming

My Life." The latter is a terrific mid-paced rocker with a doomy, decadent

Diamond Dogs-era Bowie vocal and some nifty Hendrix quotations by

Gabrels spoiled by a lack of will in the editing room: at 7:04, the song

is two minutes too long, the last section given over to a momentum-killing

slow fade. "Seven," a meditation on mortality that obviously hearkens

back to the whimsical acoustic wonder of Hunky Dory, seems like

mere pleasant filler, while "What's Really Happening" evokes a nifty

"Man Who Sold The World" vibe thanks to Gabrels' fluid, Mick Ronson-esque

guitar work. "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell" [RealAudio

excerpt] ("they wore it out, but they wore it well"), meanwhile,

is probably the album's best track, a T.Rex-ish glam-stomper no doubt

written to be sang in duet with Bowie's current best musical pal, Placebo's

Brian Molko.

While lacking the experimental fire of his last two efforts, the more

subdued 'hours . . .' is certainly no Bowiedud. Put it this way:

if he'd released this around 1985, fans would have been "dancing in the

streets" (har har). Kudos must go out here to Gabrels, who has finally

reined in his more excessive tendencies and become a truly fine guitar

player. As for confessional autobiography, I can't say I know David Bowie

any better after listening to this album, but that's fine: where would

a rock dandy be without the element of mystery anyway? If you want

unfiltered psychic pain, check out Henry Rollins.