Sharps & flats

After hemorrhaging mystique for a decade, David Bowie finally releases a record that's better than its gimmicks.

Published October 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

With all the gimmickry that comes attached to "Hours," David Bowie's fourth try at a comeback album this decade, it's clear that the man has gotten desperate. Let's pause a moment to take it all in: There's the 3-D cover art; some aggressive multimedia software that takes over your entire computer; an offer for "bowienet" Internet access; and the winning entry from the recent "Write a Song With Bowie" contest. Bowie has also announced that a young "doppelgdnger" will be standing in for him on video shoots, has reissued his back catalog and has dropped subtle, theatrical hints that his health is flagging. "Hours" is also the first major-label album to be made available for download on the Web.

At the same time, it's been close to 30 years since the world has seen a new Bowie album with 10 good songs on it. And the most desperate gimmick of all might be that with "Hours," Bowie has managed to pull it all together again and make the new album his most consistent piece of work since "Ziggy Stardust" -- and his most satisfying since "Scary Monsters," in 1980.

Throughout the '90s, Bowie has endured an oddly truncated sort of celebrity, in which he's remained a famous rock star while digging himself into a big hole as a recording artist. He's become a superstar of the cut-out bin, an iconic figure whose new albums nobody cares about. "Earthling" (1997) was the most interesting of his recent efforts, with its trendy drum 'n' bass stylings. "Black Tie White Noise" (1993) was, ah ... who gives a damn? Bowie didn't. Since the mid-'80s, when the success of "Let's Dance" crested and subsided, he's been trading primarily on his myth -- the myth of the centerless artist who's always reinventing himself, and whose art is his fame itself. That conceit already had some miles on it when he first hiked it from Warhol; and while it's sustained him as a personality ever since, it hasn't been enough to carry an audience through a long, grueling run of careless, mostly charmless albums. He's been hemorrhaging mystique throughout the decade.

Which makes the new album a revelation, but also something of an affront. The little funny-eyed bastard had it in him all along! He just never felt like giving it out! "Hours" is a career-romp, full of styles and stylistic flourishes from his earlier periods. It's also a thoroughly modern piece of work that shows an artist in full command of his gifts -- a mature, refined Bowie who hasn't ever appeared before except in a stylistic strait-jacket, performing amid some misconceived High Concept or another. The character on display here isn't the conceptualist or the celebrity, but the musician.

"Thursday's Child" reprises the Thin White Duke's slightly choked, decadent vocalisms, swelling in the choruses into a relaxed, soulful hook. "I'm Dreaming My Life" gathers together all the mannerisms that Bowie has ever stolen from Scott Walker, and builds an effigy from them -- one that can achieve the famous baritone and deep tremolo better than Walker himself now can. "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" is mirror-ball glitter rock, and what Tin Machine could've been if they'd had an ounce of verve. "Seven" does the off-kilter "Space Oddity" style with canny restraint, while "New Angels of Promise" recalls the creepy vocal styings on "Scary Monsters."

Tin Machine guitarist and longtime flunky Reeves Gabrels wrote most of the music here, and the instrumentation is mostly, like Gabrels' playing, standard rock band stuff with wiggy accents shoveled in. A die-hard fret-gymnast and yodeler, Gabrels is by far the slickest and most obvious of Bowie's musical partners, and he should be basted with a weighted pool cue every time he reaches for his whammy-bar. Even so, "Hours" is a great-sounding rock record, with all the depth and nuance the material demands. If it launches Bowie on the comeback he's been looking for, he's earned it. If not, let's hope he's even more desperate the next time around.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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