My father once argued, in a fit of aesthetic smugness, that truly great artists turn out their best material towards the end of their lives (he was referring to Handel’s Messiah, written when the composer was 65, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, composed 3 years before his death at 57); in contrast, pop musicians rarely have anything interesting to say after the age of thirty. I was fifteen and had just picked up the Rolling Stones 40 Licks, a greatest hits retrospective, and he was pointing out how pathetic it was that a man who could write “Sympathy For The Devil” at the age of twenty-five would be responsible for something as utterly dreadful as “Anybody Seen My Baby?” after a further twenty-nine years of songwriting practice. Perhaps we should hold artists a little more accountable for their entire output, rather than patronizing them by excusing later failures by reference to early successes.
This has been on my mind recently because the past few months have seen the release of Tom Waits’ Bad As Me, Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas, and Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. These songwriters have all at one point or another pushed the boundaries of what pop music can do. Cohen’s deep-chested poetic misery, Waits’ graveyard howl, Springsteen’s earnest balladeering; each has redefined the categories and reshaped the canon around themselves. Which creates a certain anxiety: how do you do anything interesting when you are a legend in your own time? Waits took a huge left turn back in 1983 when after a decade of mumbling drunken odes over killer blues piano and pretending to be homeless he released Swordfishtrombones, a bizarre mix of circus rhythms, satanic marimbas, demented organ and a whiskey-sodden yell that can only be called singing because there is no other word for it; a decade later he would up the ante even further with the 53-minute-long nihilistic uppercut of Bone Machine; and then start the new century with arguably his most experimental album yet, the hip-hop influenced shock therapy of Real Gone. So the only question in my mind as I sat down to listen through Bad as Me was what he could possibly do that he hadn’t already done. The answer turned out to be simple: nothing. Bad as Me is Tom ripping off Tom – which is fine, because I love Tom. But there is about the whole album an air of predictability, as though after a solid forty years of pushing the limits he’s able to phone the creativity in. But of course, the album got pretty positive reviews – after all, it’s a good listen, and it’s TOM FUCKING WAITS. But I wonder to what extent we’re doing him any favours by not pointing out the obvious: there is absolutely nothing here that we haven’t heard before, and while that’s to be expected from just about every other has-been old-timer, Tom Waits is not a has-been. In terms of artistry, he’s been on a pretty clear upward trajectory for most of his career; to suggest that this is all he can do anymore is just patronizing.
As for Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas, I had an almost entirely different reaction. I’ve loved Leonard Cohen ever since the first time I heard “Chelsea Hotel #2“, and my love has only grown deeper the more I’ve listened. I even loved Cohen after I heard “Jazz Police“, though it was a little like watching the woman of my dreams puking her guts out. Opening with the winkingly self-conscious “Going Home“, the album presents Cohen at the top of his game, dealing with the themes that have been haunting him since Let Us Compare Mythologies – faith, sex, misery, hope. But from the very first track, reflection on his own aging body is the ground that gives both peace and immediacy to the words, both because the aged body is so rarely heard about in pop music, and because his voice is so obviously the voice of an old man. As is normal for a bass, age has added to his range; the notes he manages to hit on songs like “Show Me The Place“ perfectly embody the subject material. This is, in fact, the Leonard Cohen album I have been waiting years to hear. The ghastly synths that plagued his work for far too long have (for the most part) been banished to whatever hades they were dredged from, leaving the songs anchored by Cohen’s voice and framed by careful instrumentation (with some excellent touches of jazz and the requisite nylon-stringed guitar). Whereas Waits’ creativity is manifested in soundscapes and turns of phrase, Cohen’s appeal has always been his honesty, that unflinching gaze which takes in everything from American hedonism to the holocaust to his own tortured road to inner peace, which refuses to accept any compensation, any cheap grace, any easy formula to explain away the ugliness of the world but which at the same time refuses to succumb to the temptations of complete misery; even in his darkest moments he is tuned to the beauty around him and the goodness that veins the world. Nowhere is this honesty more apparent, more painfully at work, than in Old Ideas.
And then by far the weirdest release of the three: Springsteen’s post-recession bitchslap Wrecking Ball. I’ve been mildly obsessed with The Boss for years, and spent most of last summer driving despondently around Southern Ontario listening to The Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska on repeat. It’s all about that voice – Springsteen could write a song about how much he hates it when his peas get mixed in with the gravy and I would feel his anguish deep within me. Which is probably why he gets away with writing about the working man’s struggle even thought it has been a good few decades since he was anything less than a millionaire. On this record, though, Springsteen has his sights aimed a little higher than the usual all-American stories about ordinary folks and the tender love songs that have been the stuff of his past few albums. As the bombastic first track, “We Take Care Of Our Own” signals, Bruce has his sights set on the very ideas that provide the mythic undergirding of America. He hasn’t been this explicitly political since The Ghost of Tom Joad back in 1995, and it’s a welcome return. But that is Springsteen’s home territory: what makes this a fantastic album to listen to are all the strange little touches he adds in the arrangement of what are, for the most part, not particularly interesting songs. The rapping on “Rocky Ground“, for example, or Tom Morelo’s killer guitar solo on “This Depression“, or the gospel choir which recurs throughout the album. While some have decried this as hokey, I think it is a truly artistic move – this is an album about America, and at this point America owes a lot more to hip hop, the soul tradition and drum loops than it does to traditional folk songs he channeled so well on We Shall Overcome. Bruce has long been lauded as one of the great songwriters of his generation, but I’ve long thought that one of his great gifts is his ability to surround himself with musicians just as talented as himself. The death of the great Clarence Clemons has brought this a little more into focus, but what a crime it is that the E-Street Band has always been relegated to the far side of an ampersand. It is this underplayed part of the Bruce Springsteen sound that makes this album brilliant – his famous voice takes its place among other voices, sometimes taking a backseat to them; the effect is the sense of an outpouring of sorrow not only by an individual but by the entire American people. Whereas Tom Joad was effective precisely because Springsteen pared his focus down to particular stories of particular people and pared his music down to match, Wrecking Ball feels like the voice of a multitude. Of course, the effect is partially caused by the obvious raggedness of Springsteen’s voice. Like Cohen, Bruce’s music owes most of its substance to the complete harmony between delivery and message – he becomes the characters he sings about so completely that any failures as a lyricist become assets; we do not expect factory workers from Jersey to be poets. This is how a rocker should grow old – with gravel in his throat, a newspaper in his hand, surrounded by musicians he respects, still listening to Top 40 pop radio.