My favorite thing about hours… may be its artwork. In the 3D cover image, an angelic-looking Bowie, clean-shaven and long-tressed, cradles the head of a short-haired, scraggly-bearded version. It’s a cheeky take, as Chris O’Leary points out, on “Michelangelo’s Pietà, with Bowie’s new somber majordomo persona cradling the dying ‘rave uncle’ of Earthling.” Sort of like Doctor Who if the old Doctor died when the new one appeared.1
On the back cover there are three Davids, two icily aloof and one distraught:
This is Bowie leaning into what I would call his benign narcissism. There is no question that he liked to look at himself; a picture of him graces the cover of every album up to The Next Day, where he is mostly obscured by the white title box. (On Blackstar, recorded as he slowly faded out of existence, he is noticeable by his absence.)
Over the last six years we have all become pretty familiar with the diagnosis of malignant narcissism, the symptoms of which were flagrantly displayed by the 45th president of the United States. But there is a positive version, where instead of behaving abusively toward the rest of the human race, the subject invites all of us to share in his or her outsized self-love. Not everyone needs this, necessarily — there are plenty of people out there who could stand to be taken down a peg — but many of us on this planet have a tendency to consistently undervalue ourselves, and it can be helpful to emulate someone who doesn’t.
Of course, it’s easy to love yourself if you’re David Bowie. Up until his final years, as the quality of his music varied wildly, he always looked like a million bucks, thanks to some combination of good genes, clean living, and a shit-ton of money.
As for the music, O’Leary calls hours… “a lesser work that knows it’s lesser, and takes modest pride in it.” As it happens, I have over the years developed a “four Bowie” theory:
- Pre-1970: Formative Bowie
- 1970s: Imperial Bowie
- 1981-1983: Commercial Bowie
- 1984-on: Lesser Bowie
Someday I will write the whole thing out in detail; for now, suffice it to say that Lesser Bowie is a mere human who struggles with inspiration and relevance, and is a much more relatable figure for it. hours... is the most self-conscious record L.B. made; says O’Leary:
It’s a record that charts sadness and mediocrity, like surveying an ocean shelf. The question, left to the listener, is whether this mood is intentional, if the diminished figure in these songs is another mask, or if it’s the only voice Bowie could muster in an uninspired time.
I’ve been having an uninspired time, too; these dwindling days and plunging temperatures do a number on my head. So I’m going to think about this for a while, then write about it as much as I feel like, whenever I feel like it. Stay tuned.