Aging with Grace: Dr. John, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Cliff
Posted November 12, 2012on:
Seriously, three cheers for the old guys. In an era where hype machine blog year-end top ten lists are often chock-full of buzz band debut albums, let us not forget that Rolling Stone is sometimes right. 2012 has seen great albums from the likes of baby boomer mainstays Dr. John, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Cliff. Despite their age, these artists have somehow managed to adapt their style to the contemporary music world while still creating a product that is very much their own.
Among these four, my personal favorite is Dr. John’s Locked Down, an album of typical Mac Renneback New Orleans-style voodoo with a hint of Afrobeat, and combined with bluesy production from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Auerbach, having clearly taken a page from his work with Danger Mouse, has helped Dr. John rediscover his gumbo weirdness, resulting in an album that’s as fun to listen to as the Keys’ career-best, last year’s El Camino.
Amazingly, Dr. John is willing not only to adapt his own style, but to venture into unfamiliar territory. Recently, he co-wrote “I Am What I Am” – a track from Spiritualized’s 2012 offering Sweet Heart Sweet Light (their best since 1997’s stone cold classic Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space) –with front man Jason Pierce.
By contrast, Cohen doesn’t explicitly or obviously adapt his previous musical style on January’s Old Ideas –as the title playfully suggests— but he must have done something right. The record was Cohen’s highest-ever charting release on the Billboard 200 at number 3. Cohen is perhaps free riding on the continued popularity of the very indie rock artists that his signature baritone likely inspired (The National’s Matt Berninger comes to mind). Yet, his songwriting stands above all, ranging from biblically genuine to sarcastic, from reflecting on lost love to bitter betrayal and separation, from ruminating on the concept of home to the concept of vagrancy. Old Ideas.
To say Cohen’s voice has aged well is an understatement. What was once effective, but awkward, synth-backed, sounds-like-your-creepy-uncle song-talk has turned into a Waits-ian rasp that is still decipherable, a gorgeous complement to his oft-heartbreaking lyrics and backed up by the quintessential female chorus.
Similarly, Dylan’s Tempest, his 35th studio album (which also peaked at number 3 on the Billboard 200), displays another gravely voice that’s better suited for bleak, 14-minute tales about humans turning on one another during the sinking of the Titanic than for Christmas music. The grim stories Dylan tells on the long tracks of this album contrast Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness, free association poetry on classic long tracks like “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Desolation Row.” It’s not that those songs weren’t coherent, but that they resulted from stream-of-consciousness songwriting sessions. The songs on Tempest, however, resemble more traditional rock and roll melodies and don’t employ as many lyrical ambiguities that would lead Dylan scholars to stay awake for an entire week searching for meaning. The album consists of tales of death that culminate in a tribute to John Lennon, as if Dylan is reflecting on all of the musical contemporaries he’s outlasted.
Likewise, Cliff’s Rebirth traverses musical history. It harks back to his immortal soundtrack to the classic reggae film The Harder They Come and recognizes Jamaica’s influence on modern pop music through his great cover of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”. In a year in which, in addition to Cliff’s musical output, Kevin MacDonald directed Marley, a documentary on the guy who comes to mind when anyone says “reggae,” Jamaican music seems to be resurging.
In the Pitchfork review of Cliff’s album, Erin Macleod wrote that Jamaica, for its 50-year celebration as an independent nation, was choosing between the Shaggy-produced “On a Mission” and Mikey Bennett’s “Find the Flag” as its national song. “It’s too bad no one consulted Jimmy Cliff,” she wrote. Indeed, Rebirth is Cliff’s application, his audition. From “Reggae Music,” the tale of his first recording, to covering tracks by artists his music clearly influenced, Cliff asserts that he’s at the forefront of a musical style that defined Jamaica and allowed for the popularity of punk and ska (before Jamaican dub) in the United States and in the UK.
All of these artists provide a fascinating contrast to one slightly younger artist who put out a rather mediocre (but inevitably number one on the Billboard charts) album in 2012, but one that was literally supposed to capture the spirit of the times. His name would be Bruce. Wrecking Ball, his supposed Occupy Wall Street album whose generic lead track, “We Take Care of Our Own”, became the unofficial anthem of the Obama campaign, treads zero new territory for Springsteen. Perhaps this is a sign of history’s tendency to repeat itself rather than Springsteen’s lack of originality. Really, nobody would expect anything less from the forever-existential artist whose fans, especially politicians (from Reagan to Obama) often misinterpret his music to be blind allegiance to America rather than dissenting patriotism.
But in the shadow of the one-two punch of Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. (two brilliant albums that personalized isolation and depression and popularized the struggles of the Reagan era lower-middle class, respectively), Wrecking Ball doesn’t break new territory. Sure, the title track offers some irresistible Springsteen cheese about his upbringing and a killer bridge, and “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” a song that takes Bruce’s love of the populist train metaphor to new heights and includes two sax solos from the late Clarence Clemons, are fine songs. But unlike Locked Down, Old Ideas, Tempest, and Rebirth, Wrecking Ball is not an adaptation to contemporary musical territory or a unique statement, but rather a retread. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and Peter Ames Carlin’s upcoming biography Bruce, one cannot help but think about the inherent hypocrisies within the man who seems anti-establishment but whose nosebleed seats cost hundreds of dollars, or the man who made so much money off of New Jersey and the plight of the weary, blue-collar working-class but can only help the Sandy victims through impersonal telethons.
I obviously haven’t covered every album released this year from older artists. Neil Young put out both folk song covers album Americana and October’s Psychedelic Pill, a 90-minute journey that takes longer to digest than a Chipotle burrito. In addition, I hear great things about Patti Smith’s new album, though I am not at all confident in my ability to hear the album in the context of her discography. Nonetheless, the contrast between the four I have lauded and Springsteen perhaps sheds some light on how older artists can stay both musically and socially relevant.
Earlier this year, I wrote that David Byrne was trying too hard to be seen as hip by collaborating with the likes of St. Vincent and that we need him to return to technological innovation. While Byrne avoided the dreaded “aging rocker bio” in his memoir How Music Works, he again lacked to offer anything new with both his book and with his bordering-on-boring collaboration with Annie Clark, Love This Giant. By contrast, Dr. John, Cohen, Dylan, and Cliff have shown that being an aging artist is actually a great thing, perhaps the greatest thing, giving you the perspective and wisdom to tackle the questions that Bruce has seemingly been trying to answer throughout his whole musical career: that of your place within the music world, within your country, and within the universe at large.
Jordan Mainzer is a student of History and Hispanic Studies at Brown University and the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA. His recent articles include film reviews of Argo and The Master, an interview with director Alison Klayman, and a review of the A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, and Danny Brown tour.