In the '70s, David Bowie and Iggy Pop were colleagues and collaborators, and out of that relationship--fictionalized last year in the movie "Velvet Goldmine"--came some of their best music. The two haven't worked together in a decade, but they've ended up on the same label and in much the same place: looking backward in the hope of making something new from their respective legacies.
When Bowie incorporated drum 'n' bass beats into his 1997 album, "Earthling," it was just his latest attempt to seem futuristic. The advance word on his new "Hours . . . " (Virgin), however, was that it would return to the style of "Hunky Dory," the singer-songwriter's 1971 breakthrough album. It doesn't, really, but neither is it an attempt to ride the latest trends. The solid but unsurprising album does use synth beats and loops, but Bowie frequently strums an acoustic guitar as he did on his first hit, "Space Oddity."
Since the days of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie has assumed a variety of personae, and on the cover of "Hours . . . " a longhaired, angelic Bowie cradles the head of a spiky-haired, bestubbled one. Reminiscent of Renaissance paintings, the image may be intended simply to demonstrate Bowie's credentials as a London art-world insider. Still, such songs as "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" and "New Angels of Promise" underscore the singer's cover pose with musings on death, judgment and salvation. At the least, Bowie has been thinking about his life.
But whose life was it anyway? Although he's always shared his latest aesthetic enthusiasms, Bowie has never been a confessional artist. Hearing him mention his mother and father in songs like "Thursday's Child" and "Seven" is a surprise; such everyday concerns as family have seldom featured in his sci-fi glam-rock worldview. When he sings, "I got seven days to live my life/ Or seven ways to die," the lyric may reflect the 52-year-old's growing sense of mortality.
Or maybe not. Beginning with '70s songs like "Five Years" and "1984," Bowie has long shown a weakness for strident but ultimately hollow apocalyptic pronouncements. If the singer has been reflecting on his existence, "Hours . . . " doesn't indicate that he's uncovered anything profound. The album is weighted more toward ballads than most of his other work, but an acoustic guitar and a deliberate tempo doesn't necessarily equal contemplation. As usual, Bowie proves more adept at constructing a package than at filling it with anything significant.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8154.)
Pop's "Avenue B" (Virgin) is more revealing, although not more satisfying. The album opens with the first of several recitatives: "I was in the winter of my 50th year/ When it hit me/ I was really alone/ And there wasn't a hell of a lot of time left," he announces to chamber-rock accompaniment. The singer turned to his books, he goes on to say, but these songs are not really about literature and philosophy. Instead, the recurring theme is the conflict between freedom and intimacy; in "Afraid to Get Close," "I Felt the Luxury" and "She Called Me Daddy," the singer reflects on the many women he's driven away.
The singer made his reputation as the original punk, but "Avenue B" is mostly scored for acoustic guitar, strings and the gentle grooves of jazz-rock trio Medeski Martin and Wood. The album rouses itself only occasionally, notably for a cover of the Guess Who's 1965 hit "Shakin' All Over" and for "Corruption," a grinding blues-rocker about the harrowing necessity of compromise. "Everything leads to corruption," he bellows, and both the howl and the sentiment are a useful corrective for an album that suffers from being overly pristine.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8155.)
CAPTION: In David Bowie's "Hours . . . " and Iggy Pop's "Avenue B," intimations of mortality.