David Bowie, Hours (1999)

Attempted sellout

Complete artistic control, working with Brian Eno again, critical praise for the first time in almost 20 years, living to see his 50th birthday – you’d think David Bowie would have been happy with his last two outings, but he’s not. Bowie just wants to be a rock star again. Hours, his heavily hyped new record, is what he hopes will get him there, despite (or because) it sounds like a pandering, cloying, comedically barren Sting album – with wankier guitars.

After two albums of space-age-provocateur music – the Eno-involved Outside (1995) and the drum ’n’ bass-inspired Earthling (1996) – Hours is as straightforward and mainstream an album as Bowie could make. It’s complete with 10 tracks in about 45 minutes, a traditional guitar-bass-drums setup and Bowie’s voice right on top, with no doubling of voices, spoken word segues, abrasive drum loops and – importantly for the straight-in-our-time Bowie – no disturbing talk of devious sexuality.

But Bowie’s plan is cursed by Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels (who gets writing and wanking credit on all 10 tracks) as well as Bowie’s refusal to rock ’n’ roll. His last two records, – tough-minded outings into electronica, sonic cityscapes and sexual introspection, – had a sense of rhythm and humor, mixing musical high-mindedness with Bowie’s love for the musical lowbrow to strong results. Hours, on the other hand, is all heavy rock guitar nonsense, more in line with the last Ozzy record than some sort of return to the good old days, whether you think they were Space Oddity or Lodger.

Tragically, Hours really does seem like an attempt by Bowie to reconnect lyrically on an emotional level, not just to pop music but to an audience beyond his always-ready fans. But all rock and no roll makes Bowie a dull boy, despite some interesting post-introspective lyrics (“Something about me stood apart/a whisper of hope that seemed to fail/maybe I’m born right out of my time/breaking my life in two”) and vocals that rarely show their age.