In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the latest 2013 release.
1997’s Earthling was a little wonder in itself. Not only was David Bowie exploring the youthful terrain of techno, jungle, and industrial rock music, but he was doing it as he turned 50 years old. At a period when many songwriters might begin to write more reflective, nostalgic pieces, Bowie was still pushing the boundaries and sticking his neck out to compete with the younger crowd.
But he’d get to the reflective, middle-aged stuff some enough.
Enter the 1999 release ‘Hours…’, a much more chilled-out collection of songs when compared to his two previous works and more along the lines of what one might expect from an aging rock star. Does this make the album a lesser collection of songs? Not necessarily. In fact, there are some real gems to be found on this disc, but coming after the innovative works of Outside and Earthling, this release may not be effectively as adventurous or exciting.
The album starts off with an unmistakable mellow, soft-rock tone with “Thursday’s Child,” a romantic song of reminiscing that is certainly one of the strongest cuts off of the tracklist. Much of the material that follows keeps along these same guidelines, and most do so quite well. In particular, “Something in the Air,” “Seven,” and “Survive” are remarkably touching performances that really sell the idea of a more stripped-down Bowie album.
That isn’t to say that ‘Hours…’ doesn’t have its moments of heavier or more subversively-oriented music. “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell” specifically sounds like a slightly tamer version of the kind of work on Earthling, and there is even some Buddha of Suburbia/Heroes-esque instrumental work in “Brilliant Adventure.”
As for where the album falls short, it’s difficult to really point to any one song or specific quality that is poorly done. The main issue is that, between the highlights, it’s just easy to get bored with the material.
When it boils down to it, ‘Hours…’ is a piece of work that doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression. The record effectively becomes more of a collection of background music rather than being a totally engrossing experience.
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Thursday’s Child,” “Survive,” “Seven,” “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell”
A Very Bowie Moment: “Who to dis? Who to trust? Who to listen to? And who to suss?” – “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell”
Best Edition: If you can get your hands on the 2005 2-disc edition, there are a number of non-album cuts and remixes to be appreciated there.
If ‘Hours…’ pointed to any new direction, it would be that of a more somber, reposed stance, and in Bowie’s next record, this mood would prove to have evolved in a grand and, with 9/11 fresh in the public consciousness at the time, very identifiable way.
2002’s Heathen was a landmark for Bowie in terms of both public and critical reception, and, in many ways, it’s easy to see why. Before looking at the songs on the disc, the credits alone boast a wide array of interesting talent. Tony Visconti, who worked on a number of Bowie albums ending with Scary Monsters, is back in the role of producer, Pete Townshend of the Who, who had also been featured on Scary Monsters as a guest guitarist, is back to contribute some fretplay to “Slow Burn”, and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl is featured on guitar in the cover of Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You.”
But aside from the impressive list of album credits, Heathen earns its wide acclaim mainly from what is an impressive and fascinating set of material. The tone is set with the dark hymn of “Sunday.” Layers upon layers of atmospheric guitars create a foreboding feeling in the air when Bowie enters with a solemn croon: “For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing, And nothing has changed, Everything has changed,” he sings.
The album isn’t entirely melancholy though. With an uproarious version of the Pixies’ “Cactus,” Bowie and company bring the tempo up with a dirty rock number, which, after the previous track, is well-needed.
What follows on the album is a mix of brooding rock songs such as “Slow Burn” and “Afraid”, stirring romanticism in “Slip Away,” “I Would Be Your Slave,” and “Everyone Says ‘Hi’”, and slower pieces of remorse like “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” and “Heathen (The Rays).” More often than not, these tracks are carried out with almost-hypnotic finesse.
The 90s was certainly an unforgettable period for Bowie, and some wonderful, innovative material surely spawned from this era. With that being said however, Heathen could very well be a, or the, high water mark for the singer’s latter-day career. Sure, not every song is an instant hit here. Some songs, like the weird “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft” and the less-than-stellar “I’ve Been Waiting for You” – incidentally, the only other two cover songs – aren’t quite as powerful as the rest of the album’s cuts, but even so, they are still enjoyable listens, and they aren’t nearly enough to bring down its impact in any considerable way.
Heathen is a clear evolution from the previous album. But whereas ‘Hours…’ was a more hit-or-miss affair of nostalgia, this record takes that mood to a much darker terrain without any discernable frames of reference. It’s much broader and all-encompassing than simple nostalgia, and it’s much more forward-gazing than merely being concerned with hindsight.
Perhaps the most pertinent message comes within the penultimate track on the record. “I demand a better future,” Bowie sings in almost-naïve honesty.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Highlights: Too many to list. Just give the record a (proverbial) spin.
A Very Bowie Moment: “And the girl next door, And the guy upstairs, And your mum and dad, And your big fat dog, Everyone says hi” – “Everyone Says Hi”
Best Edition: The limited edition with a bonus disc containing b-sides and re-records of some early Bowie material like the Space Oddity era “Conversation Piece” would be the one to try to find.