Tuesday, September 18, 2012

10 Great Late-Career Records

Posted By on Tue, Sep 18, 2012 at 2:10 PM

Smug with good reason.
  • Smug with good reason.
Today was the release date of Dinosaur Jr.'s 10th studio album, I Bet on Sky. It's their third straight solid record folowing a reunion that once seemed Smiths-level improbable for the hilarious levels of inter-band bitterness that once existed. (You can stream it in full at NPR, right now.) Their twilight renaissance is the latest in a growing list of artists who've released vital work well past the blush of youth that pop and rock n' roll were formed on presenting. Even in the midst of an Internet hype machine that overly prizes the new and novel, Neil Young's old paradigm of burning out versus fading away seems improbably quaint. Especially in a diminished music industry where the bar for success has been drastically lowered and self-sustaining cults form up on their own, their members scattered across the world.

So, to tip our caps to Dinosaur not becoming dinosaurs, we give you another ten pieces of work produced by an old master's extended prime. (And we mean, late-career. Only material released a full 20 years after an artist's first were considered.)

Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose

It's something of a comeback record cliche. A currently-hot artist using their clout to put a personal hero back in the spotlight. But, you know, that scenario often works. Jack White produced Van Lear Rose for legendary country spit-fire Loretta Lynn in 2004, 44 years after her first studio album. Now, with a bit of distance, it's almost certainly her best. (Her most consistent, at a minimum.)

See Also: The Velvet Undergrond's John Cale covering LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends"

Solomon Burke - Don't Give Up on Me

Like country, soul is a genre where a lived-in voice is great instrument. it doesn't diminish brilliant 60s singles like "Got to Get You Off My Mind", to say that Burke's crackling tone on 2002's Don't Give Up on Me has more weight and authority behind it.

Scott Walker - The Drift

And then there's Scott Walker, whose bleak, gothic crooning made him sound ancient as a young man. It took a long, long time for conceptual, compositional darkness to fully catch up to the world-weariness that his voice carried even in 60s chart hits. The Drift, his pitch-black, avant-garde pop record from 2006, is as far out into the vod as he ever got, presumably as far out as he could go. I've poked gentle fun at its meat-punching pretentiousness before, but this thing out-metals black metal for intensity.

Marianne Faithfull - Before the Poison

You can say something similar about dusky-voiced art-rock chanteuses who sounded weirdly old and jaded before their time. A pity we never heard the abject dispondency that a 60-year-old Nico could muster, but Marianne Faithfull is still here putting in occasionally strong work. Above, is a 2004 collaboration with kindred spirit PJ Harvey, who is all but guaranteed to be gracing a list like this in a decade or so.

See Also: Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow doesn't quite fit into this category, as it goes a little too far astray from the songwriter's formidable pop sense to be some kind of fulfilled prophecy. But is just so majestically odd.

Jonathan Richman - "You Can Have a Cell Phone, That's OK, But Not Me" 7"

Yes, this is cheating, a hedge against the spottiness of Modern Lover Jonathan Richman's 2008 album, Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild. But the two songs on this subsequent 2009 7-inch are such a perfect example of an artist's defined philosophy carrying over decades. I had to make some room for it. Richman was the classic old-before-his-time worrier, railing against sex without love and weed-fueled avoidance at an improbably young age. The modern world of the 1970s was too much for him! So, faced with cell phones? Forget it, you can keep it. The single's b-side, the third recorded version of a song called "When We Refuse to Suffer", is maybe the most-concentrated single statement of a career built on forsaking pleasure that comes too easily. A hero.

Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse

While Murray Street, released exactly 20 years off from Sonic Youth's first record, is maybe considered the 00s classic, I've always considered its follow up to be superior. Until recently, tragically, Sonic Youth were considered the main paradigm breaker in rock, putting out less-noisy, but still intellectually fierce material long past the life span of most all of their post-punk and alt-rock contemporaries. Fingers eternally crossed that they live on to see another dozen records.

J Mascis - Several Shades of Why

While the main thrill of new Dinosaur material is how close is hews to the laconic hard rocking of their youth, J Mascis' excellent 2011 solo record does us the favor of putting his sour sensibility in a hushed and beautiful setting for the first time, really. If you work long enough, why shouldn't all sides of your personality find their way onto a record? Familiarity doesn't always breed contempt.

See Also: The Feelies' Here Before, in which pretty songs like "Morning Comes" reveal that "the boy with the perpetual nervousness" grew up to be an occasionally chilled out man.

Robert Wyatt - Shleep

The arch-art rocker from Pink Floyd peers Soft Machine made his warmest, most whimsical record in 1997. The Brian Eno collaboration above has a sense of playfulness that Eno himself hasn't been able to muster on any of his own recent work. A consistently great record, rereleased by Domino a couple years back, it's honestly easier to get into than albums like 1974's Rock Bottom, from the peak of Wyatt's solo work.

Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas

And then there's the record in which a veteran curmudgeon shrugs at his own mortality. Grim a trope as that may be, it can also be a liberating listen. Leonard Cohen, who has always sounded adult and moved into sounding ancient quite some time ago, is in fine form on this year's Old Ideas. Its songs, like "Going Home" above, possess a cagey self-deprecation that's indistinguishable with grace. "I love to speak with Leonard. He's a sportsman and a shepard. He's a lazy bastard, living in a suit."

See Also: Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind and Johnny Cash's haunting last records, neither quite as good as breathless reviews maintained at the time but still kind of essential, and Nick Lowe's At My Age which is definitely better than the scant attention it drew in 2007.

Sparks - Lil' Beethoven

While a body finally matching an old soul is compelling, in the end, and even from old hands, new ideas are preferred. Ron and Russell Mael, who've been continuously recording as Sparks since 1971, have built a gloriously bizarre temple to cult-pop of all sorts, from sugar-sweet glam rock to coked-out-to-beejezus Italo disco. 2002's Lil' Beethoven was mainly a turn from synth-pop to mock-operatic classical piano. But check out the song above, a brilliantly titled and acid-strength "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls", to catch them roughly a decade ahead of Sleigh Bells in smuggling hair metal riffs into indie-pop, which is fairly radical even now (Caution: They may not have looked as good in denim.)

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