Pop music fans are capricious, meaning that most bands’ careers are shorter than even that of a professional footballer. It’s generally accepted that artists’ best work is normally done by the fifth album, when the combination of initial passion and musical accomplishment is still at its peak. Beyond that, many artists go on to make albums which are either dignified but play mainly to their core fanbase (Eels, for example), or are derided as embarrassing experiments (Lou Reed is the king of this, but see also Korn’s dubstep album). Even a band like Pulp, whose commercial peak came as late as their fifth album, were all but done by their seventh.
Yet there are some exceptions to this rule. This week’s entries are all artists who released critically regarded albums 15 or more years into their careers. Of course, we’ve met many of these artists before.
Johnny Cash, ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ (link)
Pretty much the definition of this week’s list, this album is, of course, best known for his dignified cover of ‘Hurt’. The Nine Inch Nails cover – surprisingly credible, doing justice to both the original song and to Cash’s legacy – serves as a reasonable summary of the album, which mainly features covers or previously-recorded Cash compositions in a stripped down, restrained manner. The best other song is Sting’s ‘I Hurt My Head’, which sounds strong (I don’t know the original). Several singers show up to complement Cash, but with mixed results: on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, Fiona Apple sounds as if she was singing to a different version of the track, while Don Henley does nothing notable on ‘Desperado’; only Nick Cave adds any value (on ‘I’m So Lonesome I Might Cry’). While this is perhaps a few tracks too long, it serves as a high point to go out on. This is the last of his albums on the list and our final visit.
Leonard Cohen, ‘I’m Your Man’ (link)
Not many artists do their most well-regarded album aged 53, but Cohen was never an ordinary artist; besides, he only started making music in his thirties. One of just two 80s albums from the never-prolific Len, this one backs him with an unusual combination of female hackette backette vocalists, a crummy-sounding synclavier and a bunch of near-Eastern instruments, while Cohen himself rarely expands his vocal range beyond a single note. In an odd symbiosis, his monotone baritone almost sounds as if he’s taken cues from his own acolyte Andrew Eldritch. This is a popular album with Cohen fans and features some of his best known songs, but sounds like an album where the writing is better than the execution, whether due to cheesy arrangements (‘Ain’t no Cure For Love’) or dud playing (the synth solos in ‘Tower of Song’ for example). I’ve not gotten a lot out of Leonard yet; we do however have another (earlier) album of his to explore.
Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (link)
Dylan’s idiosyncratic later career has seen him doing three albums of standards and a Christmas album, as well as winning a Nobel Prize he scarcely bothered to acknowledge. Before all that, though, he made a 1997 record with Daniel Lanois which was widely acclaimed. In some ways, the shimmering sound makes it as much a Lanois album, but the odd way Bob’s vocals are recorded doesn’t do any favours. Dylan’s contributions, meanwhile, are some of his most direct lyrics, delivered in a guttural semi-croak that became his late-era trademark. ‘Not Dark Yet’ is very good, ‘Can’t Wait’ sounds like a Tom Waits cut, but overall I don’t think this is a contender for Dylan’s top three (with or without the 17-minute blues cut at the end). We’ve covered Bob many times on this blog, but there are still two more of his albums to go.
Marianne Faithfull, ‘Broken English’ (link)
Marianne in 1979 was younger than any of the other artists this week, but she’d spent a lot of time in the wilderness after a fairly prolific 60s and had wrecked her voice with smoking, drugs and laryngitis, so the quality and success of this record was seen as something of a surprise. Re-inventing herself as a new wave artist with the help of Steve Winwood and others, the synth-heavy cuts on this album often sound like Blondie (‘Guilt’, the title track), or are fresh post-punk takes on ominous, brooding folk songs (‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’). The album ends with the fantastically crude ‘Why’d Ya Do It?’, an explicit story about sex with the wrong woman strewn with Berlin trilogy guitar which, amazingly, was originally written for Tina Turner (Faithfull astutely realised Turner would reject the track and took it for herself).
Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Rising’ (link)
If I told you that this was Bruce’s 2002 album, made in response to September 11, and featured the E Street Band, you could probably figure out what it sounds like without me elaborating. But in case you’re struggling to picture it: it’s 70 minutes long, is arranged with plenty of musicians, a lot of organ, and nothing gets out of second gear tempo-wise: all very classy but not very edgy. There is, however, some pretty good stuff here: ‘Lonesome Day’ is a good opener, ‘Worlds Apart’ has an unexpected Qawwali intro (I guess to demonstrate that being a working-class Yank doesn’t mean you’re anti-Islam), and ‘The Fuse’ starts off with what sounds like an organic stab at the ‘Head Like A Hole’ intro.
Robert Wyatt, ‘Shleep’ (link)
This is the first album of Wyatt’s I’ve heard, and features a bunch of old boys, but maybe not the ones you’d expect: rather than Canterbury pals like Ratledge and Ayres, it’s 70s geezers like Eno, Manzanera and Weller. I’ve always found the jazz-influenced Canterbury psychedelic sound a bit cluttered and finicky for my tastes, and this album often has the same issues. There are some exceptions, though: ‘Free Will and Testament’ is the sort of frazzled sighing Wayne Coyne excels at, the melody and backing perfect for Wyatt’s mannered, splintered falsetto. The best on the second half is ‘Blues in Bob Minor’ borrows a template from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ for Robert to ramble unusual words like ‘intercontinental’ and ‘genuflecting’ over the top. This came out in 1997 and it’s odd that Wyatt didn’t – never did – make an album with young fans who’d taken this sort of sound into the top 50. You’d think the Flaming Lips, Gorky’s and Grandaddy would have loved to make a record collaborating with him, but it never happened.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Ragged Glory’ (link)
Young is one of my big discoveries from this project: this is about the 10th album of his I’ve listened to, and I hadn’t listened to any 18 months ago. Here we are in 1990, just before he enjoyed a kind of resurgence in the 90s, due mainly to his veneration by the Seattle scene: he made some records with Pearl Jam, and he was notoriously quoted in Cobain’s suicide note. Still, Young wasn’t just coasting on endorsements: he made very good albums like ‘Harvest Moon’ in this time. ‘Ragged Glory’, like his other albums with Crazy Horse, allows many openings for lengthy guitar workouts (‘Over and Over’, ‘Country Home’). Which is fine on a 40-minute, 6-track album, but feels a bit like overkill on 10 tracks in 62 minutes. The grizzled old boys do sound up-to-date here, with something of a Frank Black feel: ripe for a career revival. We’ve almost listened to everything on the list from Young’s solo career: just one album remains.
Next week: we’ll be getting into the DeLorean and going back to the 1950s with some of the oldest albums on the list!
Status update: 651 albums listened to (65%), 350 remain