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What do we want from older artists?

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

There are musicians or bands of certain age that I have become ever increasingly confused as how I am to assess their new releases. These are most often artists you would put in the Classic Rock genre but more importantly these all tend to be artists that I have the utmost respect for, people who have done it, usually time and time again. The person who I have been really focusing these thoughts on is Bruce Springsteen. With two new songs out and an album on the way, he has made his way into music media once again and brought to a head a notion I’d had for quite some time.

What do we want from older artists?

Once again, this is not a dig on any of these artists because they have earned my respect and attention so much that I will always check out their work. For some of these artists I know I even have such a bias that I will find legitimacy in their new works, even if many disagree. I know it’s that way for Dylan, but I think a larger amount of these situation are like I the situation I am having with Springsteen right now. These new songs are standard Springsteen and that should be awesome but it’s not. Tricks that worked twenty-thirty years ago to make him the gritty bluesman, now seem clichéd, and even though The Boss has such a raw, reverent voice, almost unaffected by age that his candor should be able to overcome the typical tropes, I just left the album thinking that he no longer had the magic.

It would be logical to say here that artist need to keep evolving and that Springsteen just got stuck in his ways but that isn’t necessarily the case either. Elvis Costello, another person I have much respect for, has released a couple new songs and, in an attempt to go electronic (or something), has made some pretty terrible music himself. I really do appreciate his inventiveness, but it just didn’t work, I don’t know what else to say.

There are some examples of late in life musicians still making meaningful works. Bowie’s last album Blackstar is the first one that comes to mind and he was always producing and contributing to music throughout his entire life. Johnny Cash released some of his most heartfelt material at the end of his life and I think added a whole new layer to the artist he was. It should even be noted that even though Roy Oribison was only 52 when he died, he had his first number one hit a month later with “You Got It’, so the case could even be made that musicians can get better with age, but it’s almost too obvious that is a young person’s game.

This would be simple to say if this was a sport and a career was limited to a certain lifespan and though longevity is part of any legacy, sports are not like music where you can have a fifty year career. It’s not like we could throw these people on a senior tour and call it a day like it’s golf either. Likewise, I don’t think The Boss is going to China for a farewell tour like Allen Iverson. Still, while musicians have the longevity to make meaningful artistic statements much later in life than an athlete could ever dream of, they are also subject to be critically judged in the same light as their younger self.

I guess what I am getting at is that maybe I shouldn’t want anything from Bruce Springsteen, maybe I should just be happy that at 71 he is still putting out new music, still just being The Boss. Someone who I have yet to see live and would be happy to have the opportunity to see live but that brings up a whole other side to the argument about seeing someone live in their prime. For Springsteen, I think you have to consider Born to Run era his prime, probably through Born in the USA which is a very solid nine year stretch of historic albums including The River and Nebraska. Even into the Nineties he was releasing great songs like the “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Streets of Philadelphia” (for which he won an Oscar), so it’s clear that he’s had a historied career, one with longevity as well, but it’s fairly clear he hasn’t released music of that importance in sometime, or at least not with near the same consistency. However, from what I’ve heard, he still puts on an amazing live show and I have to believe it’s true. It’s not like Bruce Springsteen has some super powerful, Celion Dion, voice that might struggle with age, it’s not like Bruce Springsteen was the kind of young punk rock, Johnny Rotten, type we’d thought would be dead already, Bruce Springsteen was basically born old, basically the rock star version of Michael Cain, Alfred of the Telecaster. An excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat, notes of his 1984 opinion of Springsteen as, “He used to be so much older then; he’s younger than that now. Springsteen used to be the same age as Steve Winwood, but now he’s maybe six years older than Julian Casablancas.”

I would have to believe that seeing him now live, though clearly is a later phase of his career, would be one still worthy of seeing. I guess the flip side of this would be when I saw Robert Plant, which was still awesome to me, he did “Going to California” and “Dazed and Confused” even though he was with his own band the Sensational Shape Shifters. I think it was cool to see these performed just because here he was, the man I heard sing these songs dozens of times, performing them live in front of me, but I was still left with the impression that his voice was not that of the 1975 Robert Plant. I would also say I had a similar opinion seeing Roger Daltrey perform “Baba O’Riley” because it was fun, but definitely nothing like I would imagine The Who were like live. On the other hand, Daltrey opened up for Clapton that night and I was thoroughly impressed with his set, a good range of his hits both acoustic and with the band, and I felt like I was treated to a tour of his entire career. Still, the crowd was pretty lame, everyone in an arena sitting down for the most part, and I doubt this show was anything like seeing him with Cream in a London club back in the Sixties.

What my point about all this is, I think our expectations of musicians should be adjusting because creating music and art is fucking hard, it requires someone to put themselves out there and for that we should be thankful to them. That being said, there is nothing worse than when a Boomer rock journalist gives praise to a subpar album just because he’s a longtime fan, let’s call a spade a spade or, in the case of this new Springsteen album, just say it wasn’t as good as his old stuff. While he shouldn’t be held to the standard of his prime, he shouldn’t be made out to be the same artist either, so let’s just let him be who he is, older but still The Boss.

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