(Disclaimer: Those looking for an overall description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written in the point of view of a David Bowie fan.)
Overall Score: 11/15
Best song: “Seven”
Worst song: “New Angels of Promise”
It finally hit David Bowie sometime between Earthling and this that he was getting quite old. To honor the belated realization, he did about the only thing that a rock star could do: He released an old person's album. This is an album that is mature, smooth, and easy on the ears. Gone were his days of trying to reinvent his image every year to mass appeal to teenagers (thank goodness). Some people have thrown the term adult-contemporary at this album, but I confess I have a problem with that. That's mostly because every time I call something adult-contemporary, it's using an accusatory tone-of-voice. But maybe the term legitimately fits?
A handful of these tracks are surely among the best songs that Bowie had released in the '90s, and one of them is the mellow album opener, “Thursday's Child.” The synthesizers and drum machines are admittedly somewhat washy, but the melody is catchy and Bowie turns in one of the more passionate and soaring vocal performances he'd ever one. That song is a good example of one fundamental thing that Bowie had certainly been improving since getting on in age: The quality of his voice. It was generating a far more refined and husky tone than it could have ever physically had in his younger days. Even though there was room for improvement in the song's instrumentation, there are enough goodies in it for me to enjoy its overall atmosphere. Reeves Gabrels, who co-wrote all these songs, provides some restrained watery guitar, and there's a whispery female back-up singer who lends a few extra melodic hooks to the proceedings.
We hear Mike Garson piddling around at the beginning of “Something in the Air,” and of course he's always good. With that said, however, I'm glad his noodling isn't too present on this album since his gimmick was in all of Bowie's albums since The Buddha of Suburubia, and it was starting to wear out its welcome... Other than the piano, the song sounds somewhat like porn music with that repetitive synth-bass note and funk guitar. But maybe that's not a bad thing? At least it's porn music with well-placed orchestral swells, which helps make Bowie's heartfelt vocal performance soar. “Survive” is another one of my favorites, and it has a melody that I've actually kept with me for a long time after I first heard it. It's a beautiful ballad; it's the sort of song I mouth along with whenever I decide to play it on my iPod.
“Seven” also has a great melody, and its instrumentation is elegantly simple. Apart from a few light, atmospheric synthesizers and electric guitar, it's just Bowie singing along with an acoustic guitar. I find it almost surprising that Bowie could sound so engaging using only his voice and an acoustic guitar. ...Maybe he should have stuck with such simplicity when he set out to write the more rock 'n' roll song, “All the Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” which is essentially a retread of that groan-inducing stuff we were subjected to in Earthling. To be fair, it's not a horrible song, but its high-tech instrumentation doesn't do much for me. Also, its melody is boring.
“New Angels of Promise” has my vote for the album's worst song, and that's mostly due to the melody, which is flat and lifeless from the very first notes that Bowie utters. It reminds me of those tossed-off, non-hit songs that plagued the last five songs of Let's Dance. Blah. “Brilliant Adventure” is a disappointing, two-minute instrumental that doesn't live up to its song title. It sounds a lot like those incidental tracks I derided so much on the Labyrinth. Blah, blah. “The Dreamers” is a nice song altogether, fortunately, and it makes a fitful album closer. It's driving and well-orchestrated, but I wouldn't call its melody too inspired.
There's another decent song on here called “What's Really Happening?,” which has lyrics that were written by some guy who won a lyric-writing contest on Bowie's official website. I was a member of his website for awhile after I had purchased David Bowie concert tickets in 2003, but I never remember contests like that... Oh well. Truth be told, any lyrics that I would have written would have most like been far fruitier than anything on his 1967 eponymous debut. Bowie had spent the previous 30 years trying to forget about that, hadn't he...
But anyway, to conclude this review, there is no denying that 'hours...' is a heavily flawed album. However, there are enough gems on it that it's a worthwhile listen for all his fans. I've had this album for quite awhile, and I do give it a spin now and again. (I even have a copy of the video game that many of these songs were actually written for... Omnikron. I never finished it because I rarely finish video games, but I had fun with it while my interest in it lasted.)
Thursday's Child A
What makes this song so excellent is that it's a *song*... It's no more of that goofy, wannabe hip stuff he subjected us to in his previous two albums. The melody is catchy, and he follows it up with a genuine sounding vocal performance, which I think goes to show that his voice had certainly gotten better with age. The chord sequences are very nice... Even without the singing, the song would still be interesting. The instrumentation is nicely polished without sounding, at all, like it was overcooked. (I guess that's a contentious statement!) The synthesizers are a bit washy, but I like them, and there are an array of goodies in here to provide extra texture. ...Some cool drum machine effects, a whispery female back-up singer, watery guitar from Reeves Gabrels. It's a beautifully constructed song, and it's so memorable that I probably could have written this paragraph without listening to it again. (...But then again, maybe I've listened to Bowie's albums a little bit too much?)
Something In the Air A-
Yet another nicely done song! Maybe it's a little bit too long (six minutes is definitely pushing it for me), but it's something that I quite enjoy the whole way. Like the previous song, Bowie's concentrating on the melody and using instrumentation only as a means to push the melody forward... Say unlike most of the songs in Earthling where Bowie seemed to give more thought to the instrumentation (which I wasn't big on) and not enough attention to the melodies. The melody is pretty nice, and Bowie delivers it in a soaring way. There are plenty of textural goodies that help move this song forward even though my first thought listening to it was “porn music.” There's some of Mike Garson's piano noodling around in the background, a full choir's worth of background singers, and some orchestral swells that come in just when Bowie decides to sing louder. ...I even hear a glockenspiel.
Surely one of the best written songs on the album, and one of my picks for the song of the album. (Despite this not always been a highly thought-of Bowie album, I have a hard time picking a favorite song on it just like I've had trouble picking one on Ziggy Stardust.) The melody is beautiful—the verses lead up to the chorus in an artful manner—and Bowie's vocals are as heartfelt as ever, which I believe shows that he had reached the reflective stage of his career. (“Where's the mourning in my life? / Where's the sense in staying right? / Who said time is on my side? / I've got ears and eyes and nothing in my life / But I'll survive your naked eyes / I'll survive.”)
If I'm Dreaming My Life B-
I graduated from Washington State University two weeks ago, and ever since I moved back to the Seattle area, I've had a dream about that college every night. This morning, I woke up in panic thinking that the semester was over, but I had forgotten to turn in my senior design project. It took me a few seconds to realize that the project was turned it in weeks ago. More than that, I have my degree, and also my final report card (3.70 GPA my final semester, baby!!!) Everything is done. ...I don't know if this happens to anyone else, but the architecture in my dreams are so fantastic that if I were to draw them, they'd most likely freak out an architecture student, which is hard to do. One of the classrooms in one of my dreams a few nights ago had enough seats in it for probably 5,000 students, although most of the seats, you couldn't see the teacher, because the room was far wider than it was deep. The campus architecture has been getting more and more twisted and distorted every night that I had been dreaming, which has been every night... The dream I had the night I got back, the campus looked more or less like it does in real life, except larger. ...So you might be asking yourself: Why did I have the time to write all that stuff? Because this song is seven minutes long and not particularly interesting. It's orchestrated pretty well although doesn't contain any of those goodies that I reported loving in “Something in the Air.” Just the ordinary instrumentation... pounding bass, synthesizers, Reeves Gabrels providing some watery guitar in the background. At a few points, the pacing of the song changes, which is kind of cool and none of it is awkwardly done. All smoothly executed. ...But unfortunately Bowie doesn't come up to the task of writing a terribly interesting melody, so that kind of ruins it for me. ...Now, just listening to this in the background while you're writing a paragraph about the dreams you've been having lately, it's quite good!
Easily one of the best songs Bowie had written through the '90s (which might not be saying much, but it's saying something)... The melody is breezy, likable and memorable, and the instrumentation is simple and sensible. The background synthesizers are a bit plain, I suppose, but they do help keep the song dramatically moving forward. Gabrels strums his acoustic guitar as those atmospheric synthesizer swells gently sway in the background. Gabrels comes in at the end with some minimal guitar licks. ...He's certainly restraining himself from the old Tin Machine days! There's not much to this song, but it doesn't need anything else. ...I almost don't want to throw the term adult-contemporary at this, because it's so tasteful. (In my world adult-contemporary is an insult.)
What's Really Happening? B+
In this case, the instrumentation sounds like it was much more well-thought-out than the melody, which sounds more suited for a children's song than something on a serious '90s pop album. Nonetheless, the repetitive chorus isn't that bad. ...And as I said before, the instrumentation is nice. In particular, Gabrels lets his guitar rip in a few spots, playing a few interesting licks here and there. The atmosphere is quite thick and seedy (which really shows it doesn't fit that goofy vocal melody).
The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell B
...Oh my... If that's what he thought about The Pretty Things, British rock group from the mid-'60s, then why did he wait until the late '90s until he came up with this hate-song? ...Moreover, why did he cover two of their songs for Pin-Ups? (Or maybe that entire album was a big middle finger to all those well-thought-of bands from the '60s?) ...While none of that is actually true, this song was featured in the movie Stigmata, which I remember vaguely being controversial when it was released in 1999, but I never bothered seeing... and probably won't ever see. However, it's an altogether decent song, and far more rock 'n' roll than anything else had been in this album. The guitars are grittier and the drums are toe-tapping. Gabrels comes in with some flashy guitar solos, similar to his unkempt Tin Machine style. Unfortunately, I don't care anything about Bowie's vocal melody. Even the chorus seems a little bit stale.
New Angels of Promise C+
This is unfortunately one of the worst melodies I ever remember Bowie writing; it seems like a bunch of somewhat random lines of ill-thought melody that were stacking haphazardly on top of each other... and providing absolutely no hooks in the process. The disjointed flutes that open the song and appear in spots throughout were a nice touch in theory, but they only end up helping to add to the song's messy and confusing feel. ...Other than that, though, the instrumentation is handled pretty well. The guitars are crunchy, and the background synthesizers are thick. It's not uncomfortable or offensive in any way... it's just somewhat dull...
Brilliant Adventure B-
If this music is supposed to illustrate a brilliant adventure, then I can have a brilliant adventure all day sitting on my couch! ...I'm not too sure what possessed Bowie to write this two-minute instrumental that reminds me—not vaguely—of those instrumentals from Labyrinth. Why??? I suppose the atmosphere is handled pretty well, but there's no instrumental theme to speak of. ...I don't get it.
The Dreamers B
I do like this song, but it's failing to deliver the goods in terms of melody, although I more like hearing Bowie singing in a soaring manner. In the verses, which features some guitar stabs, Bowie sounds like he's singing in some sort of voice altering machine... fortunately, it's not in a particularly annoying sense. I just think it goes to show that he was running out of ideas! It would have been better if Bowie would've done what he was doing at the beginning of this album and concentrated on melodies... This album really had taken a turn for the worse towards its end, hasn't it?
We All Go Through B+
Actually, I'm brand new to this one—it was present originally on the Japan release of this album. Who knows why the Japanese get so many bonus tracks? ...And what do you know? It's not a bad one. It sounds something like a psychedelic Beatles song from Magical Mystery Tour except unfortunately, Bowie couldn't quite pull out a hook like the Fab Four! The instrumentation is of course suited for pop music in the '90s, but the mystical-ish instrumentation is done pretty well, and Bowie's always-unusual, high-pitched vocals end up sounding suited for the style. It's a good find for any hardcore fan who might have missed this!
It's not Bowie's best release by a long shot, but it has a few good songs on it! I'd recommend you listening to it at least once, and then maybe pulling off a few songs for consideration in a playlist you make.
Read more David Bowie reviews by Starcollector!
Early On (1964-1966) | The Deram Anthology (1966-1968) | Space Oddity (1969) | The Man Who Sold the World (1971) | Hunky Dory (1971) | The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) | Aladdin Sane (1973) | Pin-Ups (1973) | Diamond Dogs (1974) | David Live (1974) | Young Americans (1975) | Station to Station (1976) | Low (1977) | "Heroes" (1977) | Stage (1978) | Lodger (1979) | Scary Monsters (1980) | Let's Dance (1983) | Tonight (1984) | Absolute Beginners (1986) | Labyrinth (1986) | Never Let Me Down (1987) | Tin Machine (1989) | Tin Machine II (1991) | Oy Vey Baby (1992) | Black Tie White Noise (1993) | The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) | 1. Outside (1995) | Earthling (1997) | 'hours...' (1999) | Heathen (2002)