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Yesterday Once More

Yesterday Once More
January 25, 2008 01:12PM
The "Albums You Hate By Artists You Love" thread has triggered a thought I've pondered for quite some time but never really had a solid answer for. That is, why does the rate of diminishing returns in an artist's work increase as he/she gets older and why does that seem to be the case much more often than not?

For me, the classic "Album You Hate By An Artist You Love" would have to be the most recent Stooges' release, The Weirdness. I've listened to this album many times by now and the same inescapable thoughts invariably run through my mind each time I put it on. That is, I'm not sure if I'm more disappointed with the album itself or with the sobering confirmation that artists' latter releases rarely ever measure up to their earlier peak material. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that somewhere along a recording career, an artist's best work will ultimately be behind them and that some sort of artificial line of demarcation eventually forms. A line in which the artist's latter material is seldom ever able to cross. It appears that any chance an artist has of approaching their highest level of work (which is usually attained early on) and subsequently duplicating that high level of work on any consistent basis some fifteen, twenty years or later into their career is almost fiction. But it's not like I didn't really have this mindset even before The Weirdness was released, it's just that for me, this particular album is the exclamation point in a long line of colossal disappointments from veteran artists who continue to release sub-par material.

So, why did it seem so inconceivable to me (as well as nearly everything else I read pertaining to The Weirdness) that it could be on the same level of the band's first two classic albums? When you really break it down, aren't these basically the same members that recorded all three albums under "The Stooges" name? And more so, isn't the creation of music more of a mental medium than a physical one whereby advancing age should be of little consequence or impediment to creating the best music? I can certainly understand how the age factor impacts and limits those in physical fields. I definitely wouldn't expect Paul Coffey to effortlessly carry the puck from blue line to blue line any longer or for Jim Brown to be able to stiff arm his way to five yards per carry next year or think for one minute that come April, Bob Gibson could strike the fear in big league hitters again with an intimidating scowl and some nasty high heat.

But in the music arena, if anything, shouldn't the experience that a veteran artist derives over the years actually work to his/her advantage? I would think with each passing year a musician would be able to hone his/her skills and actually improve with each album, or at the very least, maintain his/her peak quality. However, it appears that just the opposite is true. There are a few exceptions to this rule but they seem very few and far between and even those artists' resurgences have been brief and fleeting. While a lot of veteran artists today are still capable of producing a few songs here and there on a comparable level to some of their best early work, they are rarely ever as creative and are unable to maintain that consistency over a full album any longer.

Now, some may believe that the veteran artists they value consistently produce latter-day albums on par with their early work but I can only assume that these people are in some sort of denial regarding their favorite artist's newer material.

Mott The Hoople sang rock n' roll's a loser's game around three decades ago and while that may very well be true, I've sadly come to believe that in many ways, rock n' roll is really a young man's game. I've always understood why it's a young man's game on a commercial level but I simply remain baffled as to why it is generally that way on an artistic level as well.

In a Rock context at least, are there reasons that escape me as to why an artist's quality declines or should decline as the years go by or am I just completely off the mark on this?

Re: Yesterday Once More
January 25, 2008 02:00PM
I've experienced enough epiphanies with certain artists that I don't see artistic decline as a hard-and-fast rule - I've been surprised too many times by acts I'd counted out. So I usually give artists I've loved another chance whenever they release new records.

That said, I've pondered the same thing. I think a lot of it has to do less with the physical toll of aging than the mental/emotional toll of doing the same thing for so long. It seems to me that, for a lot of artists at least, they get to a point where the music becomes less an artistic impulse and more of a career - it's the way these folks make their living. Inspiration gets replaced, or leavened by, professional craftsmanship. (The recent Pixies reunion tour is a great example.) Even the acts on the lower tiers of popular music still need to feed their families and keep roofs over their heads, so I'm not blaming anybody for the choices they make. But following a reasonably predictable formula, whether you're a superstar act like the Rolling Stones or a third-wave punk act like the Exploited, will usually result in diminishing returns as an act keeps rolling along.

Some artists try to avoid this with artistic eclecticism - Elvis Costello comes to mind. Some - hell, many - of his experiments fail miserably, but if this is what keeps him interested and inspired, then I won't argue. I just won't buy every record.

I would also throw Costello in with artists like Lou Reed who may not be capable of creating an entire, compelling album anymore, but nearly always have a handful of good-to-great songs that make new records worth checking out. You may have to wade through a lot of tripe, but there are gems in the muck. That's what CD burners and mp3 players are for.

And there's the syndrome of a band putting out product as an excuse to tour to promote it. I saw Jethro Tull a few years ago (not one of my faves by any means, but I had free tix). They played one song from the new record and then all the usual 70s oldies. It was clear to me that Ian Anderson still really enjoyed playing "Aqualung" etc., and the new record gave him an excuse to hit the road in America to play the old favorites.

Considering how mediocre The Weirdness is, but with how much fury and passion the Stooges attacked those songs in concert, I think The Weirdness fits in the same category.

Of course, some acts don't have to be around 20 years for this to happen. The lifespan of a band as an artistically viable act can be shockingly short, even if the band maintains its popularity.

This is all in a rock or pop context, of course, as you point out at the end of your post. Jazz and country musicians avoid this trap somehow, maybe because jazz is a music dedicated to exploration and country is (or at least used to be) music for adults and adult concerns.

My two cents, at any rate.
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 25, 2008 03:57PM
I totally agree with your "inspiration gets replaced, or leavened by, professional craftsmanship" point as I've heard so many albums later in an artist's career that sound great technically but somehow lack that special something that was present in their best work consequently making their new stuff fall short of the mark.

Costello is one of the artists I initially thought about in regard to this topic as well because of the variety he's employed on his later albums. That being said, I doubt that if he subsequently tried to reach his high-water marks on albums like This Year's Model or Trust that he could have. Perhaps realizing this, he went in other directions instead.

And yes, there will always be a handful of songs on later albums that are worth hearing but after the decrease in quality curve starts to kick in from artists that I like but don't necessarily deem my favorites I lose interest in them because I feel that their greatness in now behind them. A classic case in point for me would be REM. I really haven't cared about what they've done since New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Most people probably think they "jumped the shark" even before that.

But for those favorites of mine still around like Bowie, Reed, Westerberg, Iggy and Patti I'll always own a copy of their new albums regardless of quality. There may be some excellent things here and there but I still haven't heard a great album from any of them in a great while.

That being said, I'm sure that 20 years from now I'll pick up that Strokes reunion CD or that future album Ken Griffin will undoubtedly make under yet another different musical act/vehicle and I'll once again hope for that infinitesimal chance that they'll catch lightning in a bottle one more time.

Post Edited (01-25-08 12:19)
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 25, 2008 05:34PM
I think of a lot of it has to do with expectations. I remember how much I was looking forward to Westerberg's first solo album that I was incredibly disappointed by how mediocre it was -- enjoyable, sure, but not the sort of masterpiece I figured he'd put out to make everyone forget about the other band he'd been in. But his quality was already starting to drop, with their last two albums. Costello stopped making quality albums, for me, after he joined Warner Brothers. He's done some great stuff, but nowhere near the overall sort of albums he used to put out. Robyn Hitchcock bounced back big time for me with Ole Tarantula, but that may be because I wanted to him to put out more smart, poppier stuff, and he did. Now I look back at his more folksy albums (Spooked, for one) and enjoy them, too. Prince dropped off the radar, too, but still puts out a decent single or two -- when he wants to (lots of "to/two/too's" there, sorry).

A film professor friend of mine once remarked that people's favorite music --the kind they listen to over and over again and stack up against others -- tends to be from those times when they were the happiest. The Rolling Stones were playing a concert at the OU football stadium -- which cancelled the nearby class we were teaching, and which spraked the conversation -- and I wondered why anyone would pay 60-70 bucks to hear what was essentially a human jukebox. He gave the above statement and added: "Some people will pay good money to be reminded of happier times." Maybe. I have noticed that many people I know listen to the stuff they caught onto when they were in their late teens and early twenties. I'd hate to think that's the happiest time of one's existence, but I think his point is valid. Most people use music as a soundtrack to their lives (great band, BTW), but don't view it much as art or spend a great deal of time defending their tastes. Music critics -- and I think many of us would at least claim to be realted to that title, even if we wouldn't necessarily use that term -- are about sprading the gospel of stuff that is supposed to be Good -- stuff you should be listening to, instead of the stuff you may be listening to. When a band we really think of as great puts out something that isn't up par for them, it almost hurts, because it seems to indicate the possibility that someone out there will listen to that CD, and not "get into" the ret of The Stooges' back catalog.

Enough of my yackin'. Let's boogie!!
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 25, 2008 07:12PM
"I have noticed that many people I know listen to the stuff they caught onto when they were in their late teens and early twenties. I'd hate to think that's the happiest time of one's existence."

Definitely there is some nostalgia value in play.

Also take into consideration that by then you've heard a LOT of music. I think as I hit my mid-20s I became much harder to impress. I am now well beyond my mid-20s, and I continue to hear new bands that I like a lot, but I have more perspective on them than I did when I was younger.
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 25, 2008 08:23PM
I think there's an awful lot of "familiarity breeds contempt" that goes on, too. Once someone has been around long enough, the public invariably says "Okay, we know what you're all about. Next!" It's hard to think of anyone who has had a long-running career that the masses have not eventually looked at and yawned, whether that artist is still doing good work or not. Neil Young and U2 are probably the only ones who have come close to achieving that, but they have their detractors, too.

So I'm not completely sure that there's always a drop-off in the quality of the work being done, so much as just a general feeling of "Yeah, I've heard this before." Probably a little of both.

I do think a lot of people who get written off as old farts are still doing great work, but no one pays attention anymore. I think David Bowie's last few albums, starting with EARTHLING, have been as consistently good as his 70s work was. But there's no market or format that pays attention to Bowie anymore, so it's all been under the radar. HEATHEN is a great album, and EARTHLING is pretty close to it in quality and its incorporation of drum & bass showed that he still had his ears open and was trying to stay current and cutting edge. But the main reaction to those discs was "Is that old coot still putting out records?"
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 25, 2008 08:45PM
I was hoping you'd chime in at some point.

I agree with the familiarity breeds contempt angle...I've been guilty of that myself, especially in the last couple of years.

Your post also points out that it's all a matter of perception.

Neil Young is a good example. I think there's a chunk of the public who buy his records faithfully, then listen once or twice and file it away. I'm ashamed to say that's what I've been doing with his records the last decade. That's probably unfair, as he's been making consistently interesting, often great albums, but there aren't any real surprises. Maybe at least a little bit of a novelty factor would bring me back more often to discover the treasures that no doubt lie within.

I also think there's a fair chunk of folks who hear or hear about a new Young record and think, "He's just doing the same shit he did in the 70s," and ignore it. The argument could be made that there's no point when his 70s work is still widely available. On the other hand, you could also argue that he's doing Neil Young better than anyone else can do Neil Young, and new Young stuff is worth it even if it's in a style he's done to death.

Then, of course, there are the folks who buy every Young record and give it 5 stars on Amazon no matter what it sounds like.

This entire discussion could into points about objectivity and subjectivity, but that would takes weeks and a zillion posts.

I agree with you about Earthling, by the way. I only mention that because you and my ex-wife are the only other people I know who think it's a good record. (I disagree about Heathen, which I found terribly dull - sorry. I like Reailty a lot, though.)
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 26, 2008 04:04PM
I like HEATHEN a lot - it feels like Bowie just said "Screw it. I'm done with being the chameleon, I'm just going to hook back up with Tony Visconti and start doing good records." And I think REALITY is a continuation of that attitude. Nothing flashy, just a really good Bowie record (although I think his cover of "Pablo Picasso" is pretty awful). But overall, HEATHEN & REALITY were a great one-two punch, but now he seems to have dropped out of sight again.

Plus, I was listening to HEATHEN while driving through Ohio last year, and "I Took a Ride on a Gemini Spaceship" started playing right as I pulled into the parking lot of the Neil Armstrong Museum, and that was really cool. Although I don't know if Armstrong ever went on any Gemini missions.
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 26, 2008 04:27PM
Neil Armstrong did Take A Ride on a Gemini Spaceship, Gemini 8, which launched on March 16, 1966 & featured the first ever docking between two spaceships.
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 26, 2008 05:01PM
Cool. It was one of the great coincidental moments of music listening in my life.

The Neil Armstrong museum was pretty cool - right off the interstate north of Dayton. I skipped going to the Life Size Wax Museum of the Bible on the way home from the R&R Museum in Cleveland last year so I could check it out. But if I go back to Cleveland this year, I'm definitely going to the Biblical wax museum, between Columbus & Cleveland. But I don't know if there's any exhibit upcoming at the Rock & Roll to justify the trip like the Clash exhibit did last year. I think they've got the Doors this year, which would be okay, but don't know if it would be worth a ten hour drive to get there.
Re: Yesterday Once More
January 28, 2008 10:33PM
As a result of this discussion, over the last several days I've gone back and pulled out Bowie's last few releases. I always thought Heathen was pretty good but I came away even more impressed with it after my most recent listens. I did not find Reality to be quite as strong as I remember, however, it is sounding better to me as I continue to listen to it even more now. The most surprising thing though was Hours, which relies on a bit more atmosphere and is a tad more subdued than Heathen and Reality. Regardless, I may have actually found it to be the most consistent out of the three although I'd like to listen to it some more before making that declaration. With respect to Earthling, I always found it to be Bowie's strongest post-Scary Monsters release and it's a shame it's not more widely recognized as such. So, no argument here on that one.

Some of Bowie's later tracks like New Killer Star are strong enough to fit nicely on Scary Monsters, an edited Dead Man Walking could have been a hit and Slow Burn is actually one his best ever tunes. Nevertheless, by and large I do not believe that any of these later releases begin to approach the level of his 70's output. Sure, there may be a little "familiarity breeds contempt" at play here but if a grand experiment could be undertaken where you could change time and flip Bowie's pre and post Scary Monsters output so that his career begins with Let's Dance and his mid-period begins at Space Oddity, I'm fairly certain most of us would be saying that Bowie's full length brilliance didn't really materialize until The Man Who Sold The World. So, I don't feel his drop in quality is really due to the familiarity of his work especially when you factor in his history of genre-hopping.

That being said, this thread ultimately made me revisit these later Bowie albums and listen more diligently than I might have otherwise. In turn, I am now more cognizant of how good some of the material is on these later albums that I'd been readily dismissing for some time now. So, I'm at least glad this has been brought to my attention as I will grab for those CDs or click my iPod wheel toward them more often than I have been up to this point.

Re: Yesterday Once More
January 29, 2008 12:19AM
I'm not a huge Bowie fan but willing to acknowledge that I'm missing out by not following the recent records. I think Heathens is very strong, but I haven't fully heard either Reality or Earthling.

I remember Bowie doing "Dead Man Walking" on perhaps Leno or Letterman.
Re: Yesterday Once More
February 02, 2008 02:38AM
Generally, I'd agree things tend to decline quickly and dramatically.

However, I find the output of artists such as Billy Bragg, Aimee Mann, Ted Leo and Peter Gabriel to be more interesting (if not always better) with each release. Maybe we're growing old together.

For me, the ultimate example of turning this on its head would be the (reviews recently updated and improved on this here site) Tim/Neil Finn enterprise. Tim will never be half the songwriter his brother is, Neil will never be half the singer his brother is, but every time they've collaborated- for the sake of this discussion, as members of Split Enz in the '70s/'80s, as members of Crowded House in the '90s, as The Finn Brothers in the '00s- their output as collaboraters has benefited, and their subsequent efforts have been even stronger. Both of these guys have been at it for more than 30 years, and they don't stop been steadily improving.
Re: Yesterday Once More
February 02, 2008 12:18PM
Jermoe - That is an excellent observation on the dynamics of the Finn brothers. Thanks for that.
Re: Yesterday Once More
February 02, 2008 11:47PM
Jermoe and Brad - as the maintainer/updater of the Crowded House / Finn evaluations, I'm grateful for the feedback. And of course, always happy to hear people paying attention to the Finns.
Re: Yesterday Once More
February 04, 2008 03:02AM
The only thing I can say on this topic is that Yesterday Once More is one of my favorite Carpenters tunes. I never get tired of it.
Re: Yesterday Once More
February 04, 2008 02:14PM
> Neil will never be half the singer his brother is ...

I wouldn't agree with that. Neil's no slouch as a singer. (I would agree that his collaborative efforts with Tim, in any decade, have been strongest.)
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