For reasons that don’t require much explanation, the midlife crisis remains more of an evergreen theme in film and literature than in rock & roll. Your average singer-songwriter, eager to seem sage before his time, might have one in his 20s — Jackson Browne was still shy of the big three-oh when he made 1974’s ”Late for the Sky” and 1976’s ”The Pretender” — before nervously retreating to pop’s fountain of youth. Bob Dylan’s near-death experience of an album, 1997’s ”Time Out of Mind,” is the recent exception, but most rockers would rather give themselves a musical comb-over than act their age.
So it’s with some courage that David Bowie brings us hours…, a concept album about what a drag it is getting old. The erstwhile lad insane may have a new, stringy haircut, but the 52-year-old dares to feel tired, or maybe just really wistful, in this regret-filled song cycle. You may feel less inclined to applaud his bravery after learning that this album isn’t about his life, which is just swell, thanks, but inspired by his less fortunate friends’ search for purpose in the twilight of their years. (You picture Bowie grilling his tubercular old art school chums: ”So what’s it feel like to have your dreams not come true?”)
Seeing how Bowie has made ”hours…” one of the first major albums available for online download before retail release, one can only imagine what a twentysomething webhead will make of all these menopausal lamentations. There’s a lot of empathy here, and ”Thursday’s Child,” for starters, is the loveliest ballad Bowie’s written in an aeon, sung by a man who feels let down by everything in his life except his mate. But the rest of the album doesn’t often rise to that standard, and goes a ways toward proving how hard it is to write about ennui without succumbing to it.
As promised, there’s a return to the glitter-pop of ”Hunky Dory” (quite the opposite of the drum-‘n’-bass electronica on 1997’s ”Earthling”). But it’s a pretty enervated version of that sound, with Bowie sounding drained and only one rocker, ”The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” building the slightest head of steam. Given that the theme is maturity’s flickering light, the pacing is probably deliberate. Even so, did he have to go putting out fire…with Vaseliiiiiine?