(Music on Vinyl – MOVLP 1400 – vinyl)
With the fiftieth anniversary of the release of “The Laughing Gnome” now less than eighteen months away (April 14, 2017 – make a note in your diary!), fandom is increasingly agog at the prospects of how David Bowie might celebrate it.
The legendary mix shorn of vari-speed gimmicky must surely be in the pipeline; a vinyl reissue for the accompanying album; and a picture disc of a period Bowie in full giggling pixie-style drag is a must. Other treats will surely follow.
Meanwhile, to whet our appetites, his ongoing reissue campaign steps up another gear with a slew of fresh vinyl poised to drop across the next few months. A boxed set of the classic 1970s LPs is scheduled for the fall, with a new compilation of rarities included; Reality, from the early 2000s, is imminent.
But first, the album that was greeted, in 1999, as his millennial return to Hunky Dory-esque pastures, the effervescent …Hours, has just landed and, while it has become excruciatingly fashionable to describe it as one of his lesser efforts, it is actually his latter day masterpiece.
180 gram vinyl looks and sounds hefty, a twenty-page booklet prints the lyrics alongside the photos… in terms of packaging, it’s a stunner; and, while the transfer to vinyl cannot disguise the flatness that is the hallmark of digital mastering, it’s not so headache inducing as the Earthling reissue of recent ill-repute.
There again, that might be because it’s not Earthling.
Conceived not to compete with the other music of the age (which both Earthling and its predecessor 1:Outside blatantly were), but to consolidate all that he had accomplished himself, …Hours might not have been his closest album to Hunky Dory, but it was his first to have been made with the same sense of self-contained innocence that is that collection’s most resonant quality; the first to have stated from the outset, ‘this is what I think,’ and not hung around to hear its listeners’ response.
With the exception of a handful of now-entrenched production twirls, nothing about Hours dates it to any particular point in time; again, an attribute that few other David Bowie albums can match. Neither riding a wave that was already washing the rock scene, nor predicting one that was about to descend, Hours could be described as a conventional record, even a mainstream one… but it is mainstream in the same sense that mid-period Neil Young is mainstream. There is no mistaking its creator, no overlooking its quirks. But there is no danger, either, of anybody leaping up triumphantly and asking, ‘who’s been listening to too much… whatever?’ It is a David Bowie album in the best sense of the expression.
The intimate nature of the recording sessions played a major part in the accomplishment. True to the advance word, the bulk of the recording was carried out by Bowie and Reeves Gabrels alone, although a handful of other players would pass through Seaview Studios as the sessions elapsed… percussionist Mike Levesque, borrowed from Dave Navarro’s band; one-time Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett (executing a decidedly un-Rollins-esque performance through ‘If I’m Dreaming My Life’), Mark Plati throwing in some bass and synth, and 1.Outside drummer Sterling Campbell, doubtless delighted to find himself working with Bowie, without Eno throwing bizarre commandments at him.
Bowie also toyed for a time with the idea of inviting R&B divas TLC in to supply backing vocals on the track ‘Thursday’s Child,’ a notion that absolutely horrified Gabrels. Instead, he recommended Bowie take a listen to one of his old Boston buddies, singer/songwriter Holly Palmer. Her beautiful, near-ethereal contributions to the song absolutely negated anything that TLC might have brought to the sessions. Plus, she was able to stick around longer than they would have as well. Palmer, alongside singer Emm Gryner, would become Bowie’s regular back-up vocalist for the entire ensuing tour.
Also passing through the sessions, once they relocated to New York in May, was one Alex Grant, a BowieNet user who entered, and won, a remarkable competition… to complete an unfinished Bowie-Gabrels composition. The skeletal music and chorus of what became the raunchy roll of “What’s Really Happening” was posted on the site for fans to complete with three original verses. The winner would see his or her handiwork recorded and included on the new album.
It was, then, a disparate band of musicians that, contrarily, alchemies Bowie’s most cohesive vision in years. As Bowie’s first new album since turning fifty, one may (or, given his notorious contrariness, may not) have expected a degree of retrospection to have crept into his lyricism, and the bulk of …Hours did not disappoint. ‘I wanted to capture a kind of universal angst felt by many people my age,’ Bowie acknowledged. ‘You could say that I am attempting to write some songs for my [own] generation.’
More instructively, however, he was writing songs for his own audience – or, at least, that portion of it that had come of age as he came to fame, and who’d followed him for better or worse ever since.
Without once self-consciously replaying old riffs, old lyrics, old anythings, …Hours nevertheless captured moods and moments without appearing to try. A taste of Berlin, the ghost of Glam, the return of the Thin White Duke, all bubbled beneath the surface and all of it a little older, a little wiser, and just a teensy bit regretful, not for what he had or hadn’t done, but for the fact that he’d never do it again. Or be given the chance not to do it.
So the slash and flash of “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell” emerged Bowie’s glammiest concoction since “Hallo Spaceboy,” meaning it’s one of the most sparkling jewels he’d penned in a quarter of a century; “Something in the Air” frolicked audibly within the Euro pastures of Station to Station; “New Angel of Promise” toyed with Berlin-era mystification; while the anthemic anguish of “Dreaming My Life” was every great single Bowie made in the mid-1960s, revived by the guy who made Scary Monsters, while a single finger jabbed out “I Wanna be Your Dog” on the keyboard.
Thinking back across his own output, Bowie concluded that he had three instinctive modes of songwriting: “the narrative, crafted song type; the experimental ideas and situational type; and a theatrically-motivated, scenario type.” …Hours would be consumed within the first of these modes, with a little of the third thrown in, as he put it, “for seasoning.”
He talked of the significance of dreams, the potent strength of the dream state, and his own “quite Jungian” belief that “dreams are an integral part of existence, with far more use to us than we’ve made of them.” In fact, he later admitted that it was only at Gabrels’ insistence that the album was not titled Dreamers. “Oh, you mean like Freddie And The…,” the guitarist quipped, and Bowie dropped the notion on the spot.
A pitfall that he was not going to avoid involved the actual nature of the lyrics… as in, just how honest, just how autobiographical, was …Hours meant to be? Bowie did his best to head those questions off at the pass… “in a way, it self-evidently isn’t [autobiographical],” he insisted. “The progenitor of this piece is obviously a man who is fairly disillusioned; he’s not a happy man. Whereas I am an incredibly happy man.”
Indeed, though the album was redolent with moments that could be construed as intensely personal revelations, they were generally those that every man and woman could identify with. A truly autobiographical David Bowie album, he reiterated at every opportunity, would have to be a very happy one. “And I can’t stand happy albums. I don’t own any happy albums and I wouldn’t want to write one.” So there.
But if it’s not a happy album, neither is it a downer. Even at what might be construed its most introspective, melodies yearn and riffs demand attention. It’s an album to dance to, weep to, laugh with, dream with. And if the Bowie Police insist that it’s his weakest album since he stumbled back from the abyss of the eighties and early nineties, then maybe that’s a recommendation as well.
…Hours is not an album to file away with the rest of his output, to analyze in the light of all that came before and after. It was – and is – worth far more than that.
And, despite its green-blue shade of wax, it doesn’t look like a Rolling Gnome, either.