Clash hates to break it to you, but everything’s getting older. Your face, your hands, and your big, beautiful face: as you read this, you’re aging. Quick, do something more constructive! Nah, just kidding. Read this, since you’re here already.
Can an aging artist maintain not only a penchant for experimentation as they reach the later stages of their catalogue – or does the well of inspiration dry once the greys have well and truly taken root? Obviously, the answer is: yes, of course older artists can realise brilliant work. You’ve just got to know where to look, and listen…
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Tom Waits (born 1949) – ‘Bone Machine’ (released 1992)
Tom Waits embraced the persona of a beatnik throughout his early career and depicted the alcohol woes and strange characters met when living that life. Critic Roger Ebert once said few people read Charles Bukowski after the age of 30, and I think similar rules apply to reading beat writers – it's a phase most settle down out of, whereas the lives of most of the beats were ended by the ‘free’ lifestyle they embraced. Waits seemed on the self-destructive path of a romantic drunk (the worst combination), yet in 1992 he stopped drinking and ‘Bone Machine’ suggests music itself might just have been his new muse. The album finds him effortlessly fusing genres, instrumentation and vocal styles. It’s true that he’d done those things before successfully – yet he never sounded quite this intense.
‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ is a perfect track in illuminating that while Waits might get older in years, he’ll never sound tired – with its fuzzed-out guitar and nursery rhyme-like melody, it’s a slap in the face to aging. Many artists ‘grow out of’ making primal music, but Waits proves you can be an older guy but still slam on the distortion pedal and scream over a two-minute song.
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Scott Walker (born 1943) – ‘The Drift’ (released 2006)
With age comes musical as well as personal conservatism for many – but Scott Walker proves that the stereotypical arc of a musician is there to be defied, and he’s pushed musical boundaries with each release since 1995’s ‘Tilt’.
‘The Drift’ is a continuation of ‘Tilt’’s unsettling dissonance – and album highlight ‘The Escape’, with its duck-like vocal crescendo, shows there doesn’t have to be a cap on experimenting with the possibilities of the human voice.
The success of the album lies in the fact that despite its lack of conventional structures its highlights are created by use of simple dynamics – loud and quiet, dark and bright, harsh and pleasant sounds. Although I enjoy Walker’s avant-garde pieces, it’s also true that without the biographical information behind them and their reputation I’m not sure I’d be as inclined to sit through some of the more minimal, drawn-out sections on show here.
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David Bowie (born 1947) – ‘Outside’ (released 1995)
David Bowie’s music is so monolithic it often seems to exist outside of the period it was released in, and ‘Outside’ is hard to place considering it came out around the same time as Britpop, and just after grunge. As usual, Bowie works in his own time frame.
While the clear influence of industrial music might make Bowie seem like more of a follower than he was in his youth, he can't help but make it his own. ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ is a fine example of Bowie’s originality as his haunted vocals and dreamy lyrics, alongside stomping intense rhythms, represent a contrast to the usual atmospheric gloom of industrial music.
David Bowie was 48 when he released this album, a feat in itself considering how forward thinking it sounds. It is his best album? It’s definitely up there, and its reputation grows as Bowie’s work continues to be listened to and reappraised. I doubt we’ll ever see the day that ‘Outside’ is put above ‘Ziggy Stardust’ or ‘Hunky Dory’ by the majority of critics or fans – but for originality and creativity, it earns its place as one of his most essential works.
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Portishead – ‘Third’ (released 2008)
One point of note about Portishead's ‘Third’ is how divergent the ages of the members were on this record: in 2008, Geoff Barrow was 36, Beth Gibbons was 43 and Adrian Utley was 51.
The danger of your favourite band getting older is that they’ll start to repeat themselves or become too settled into the identity of what they’ve been. It’s important for artists to continue the journey of musical discovery – and Portishead’s implementation of real band instrumentation while maintaining their characteristic atmospheric sound feels natural here, even after an 11-year break between studio LPs
There’s real despair on the track ‘Threads’ and the line “I’m always so unsure” is one that could just as easily come from a 14-year-old’s book of poetry as the mouth of a 43-year-old (which is not to diminish it). Emotional honesty is rarely so prominently displayed.
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PJ Harvey (born 1969) – ‘Let England Shake’ (released 2011)
PJ Harvey’s trajectory is common enough – intense early albums followed by a slow maturity encompassing a wider variety of instrumentation, more emotive singing and less angst-ridden lyrics. If you enjoyed the intensity of ‘Rid Of Me’ it can be hard to take the mellow, peaceful-voiced Harvey. ‘Let England Shake’ eases the loss of cathartic screaming in her music as it retains the passionate energy of her earlier works without the use of distortion and primal vocal performances.
The album’s success lies in Harvey’s decision to build songs around the topic of her homeland to reveal a frustration of what it’s become, alongside a yearning for an England that once was – and still can be, at its best.
‘Let England Shake’ is one of the best examples of an older artist progressing from the intense feel of their earlier music without replacing it with common themes – in other words, a slew of earnest love songs – or more M.O.R. musical choices.
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They Might Be Giants – ‘Join Us’ (released 2011)
The best thing about the first two TMBG albums was they seemed to exist in a bubble outside of reality and – with cow samples and single-minute songs – they implemented avant-garde touches within music that was the opposite of the self-consciously ‘art’ art world.
Yet as TMBG’s John Linnell (born 1959) and John Flansburgh (1960) got older, both their songwriting chops and willingness to create original music diminished – culminating in them at one point seeming doomed to make children's music forever.
Luckily, recent years have seen TMBG return to a level of pop perfection with some of those experimental (and bizarre) touches that made their early releases so great. The most original point on ‘Join Us’ is the tightness of the vocal interplay – in particular during ‘Spoiler Alert’ and ‘Protagonist’ where the two Johns sing different melodies in unison, yet arrange the song in such a way that they harmonise.
It’s a treat to hear two lead singers at the top of their games melodically, in a time where studio effects are diminishing the importance of distinctive vocal performances.
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Swans – ‘The Great Annihilator’ (released 1995)
Anyone who has read self-help book Think And Grow Rich will see music as a counter-example to the claim that generally people are more successful between the ages of 40-60. The argument levelled is that youths are overly distracted by their sexual energy and only with age are they able to subdue it and focus that same energy towards more productive pursuits.
While a huge percentage of music denies the theory – especially the punk rock and hip-hop genres – the Swans discography might just support it.
Even today, Michael Gira’s (born 1954) Swans are producing music with intensity that’s ageless. Gira’s world-weariness is an essential presence in the band’s music – his references to sliding sanity and desperate, groan-like vocal performance suggest he’s been through more than a few dark nights of the soul.
Throughout this album, Gira is the Dionysian conductor to a chorus of twisted bacchanal followers – and his music gives a voice to the darker sides of humanity with Freudian psychodrama (‘Mother/Father’), alcoholism (‘Alcohol The Seed’), and the concerns of the body (‘Where Does A Body End?’).
Of all the artists on my list, this is the only I can think of that released their most critically acclaimed albums (‘The Great Annihilator’, ‘Soundtracks For The Blind’, ‘The Seer’ and most recently ‘To Be Kind’) with members over the age of 40.
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Words: William Bradbury
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