Hours

Never mind the premillennium panic, David Bowie seems to be saying on Hours . . ., let's try plaintive instead. Bowie's twenty-third album is as nakedly emotive a collection as anything in his iconic catalog; it's a summary statement from the man who invented postmodern rock & roll, so school is in session. But teacher is more concerned with baring wounds than with making big statements: "The pretty things are going to hell/They wore it out, but they wore it well" is as big as it gets. The sentiment sounds chucked from Johnny Rotten's diary, almost a kiss-off to the rock era. Bowie is probably the only cat around with the history, irony and distance to deliver that lyric as self-critique, death sentence, fond reminiscence and party favor all at the same time.

Cranking the guitars up some would have made the Sex Pistols analogy more palpable, but it would have taken away from the album's general air of effervescent melancholy. Hours . . . contains that quite bearable lightness of being that comes with Bowie's position as a relevant older rock star. Having done his bit for future primitivism on his previous two conceptually frenzied outings, Outside and Earthling, Bowie brings the curtain down on the century with a collection of songs that are just, well, hunky-dory. Members of the fan base will also hear echoes of Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Heroes, Low and even Tin Machine. First and foremost, though, the introspection of Hours . . . is a testament to the serenity that comes with legend status, maturity and endurance.

As was the case with Miles Davis in jazz, Bowie has come not just to represent his innovations but to symbolize modern rock as an idiom in which literacy, art, fashion, style, sexual exploration and social commentary can be rolled into one. While this isn't an idea without its heirs apparent — the names Corgan, Reznor and Manson come to mind — Bowie makes it all seem so damn easy.

Hours . . . wafts into the room, breezily delivers its angsty arabesques and afterlife lullabies, and then luminously bows out in a succinct 45:42. Confessional highlights include "Survive," with its fragile failed paramour, and "Thursday's Child," about a life of despair saved by true love. On these songs, Bowie's voice, darker and woodier in timbre than usual and on the verge of tears, strains over music gently suggestive of elevator Philly soul and the ghost of Phillipe Wynn: "Shuffling days and lonesome nights/Sometimes my courage fell to my feet/Lucky old sun is in my sky/Nothing prepared me for your smile."

As always, Bowie's eccentric sense of melody twists around the ear like a space oddity, getting under the skin, plucking the heartstrings and stirring up feelings of alienation we never knew we had. Bowie's longtime partner in crime, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, takes a co-writer credit on everything here. Their fertile collaboration yields settings full of atmosphere, spunk, grit and nuance; Hours . . . is an album that improves with each new hearing. Just when all the pretty young things might have thought their world was safe from Jurassic intrusion, here comes Bowie, staking an unshakable claim on rock's brave next world. Hours . . . is further confirmation of Richard Pryor's observation that they call them old wise men because all them young wise men are dead.

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