Tuesday, December 28, 2021

 He's following what Grace Slick did when she retired from music. "All rock and rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire." As much we argue that the muse for some rock musicians keeps on bringing on new ideas and new perspectives, rock, and roll are the music of the young which means being confused, prone to emotional extremes, being naive, arrogant, self-loathing, the entire gamut of lesson-learning all of us suffer through on the way to becoming adults, citizens, parents, taxpayers. For someone in their fifties to be singing old songs about being a rebel and such and writing newer tunes that don't have much to add to what they've already committed to chord progressions indicates someone who hasn't learned anything. 

That's why novelists and poets have the advantage in the aging process, as they are allowed to get older, become grumpy, maybe more confused and fatalistic, so long as the language they choose to write in, the quality of the actual writing, sustains the narrative. So, bravo Rollins. Of course, we are speaking broadly here, and there are more than a few songwriters who can negotiate to age and write engaging material. I can think of a dozen artists who are like that, and likely another dozen after pausing to consider a second round. But I think the output becomes more erratic as you get older, more difficult, perhaps if you've already created a large body of work over a several-decade span. There is that need to keep producing work even though you're aware that you have more misses than hits. 

Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, dozens of others pursued new work into their later years, and there is that aspect where the fresh ideas reappear as recognizable formulas in newer songs. But this aspect of the aging artist, that later work will, in most cases, not be consistent in quality, is evident in the other arts, whether fiction, poetry, film making, drama. There are poets such as John Ashbery who likely published ten books beyond his best days as a bard, Clint Eastwood's movies have become more minimalist and brutally efficient in terms of film storytelling, sometimes to the extent that some of his later flicks seem like parodies of his best days, and novelists like Updike, promiscuously productive, had an extended string of novels and short story collections and poetry that were, at best, exercises in keeping oneself busy. 

We do have to tread carefully in this area and temper our expectations for older artists who continue to create new work since it should surprise none of us that artist styles, approaches, subjects of concern change over years of living experience and that judgment of new material over what's considered their "best" work needs the context of the long view. Often enough the new approaches, new designs are valid in their own right and are powerful statements of where an artist happens to be at a later stage in their life. This does not imply that the work is bullet-proof from critique or that it works aesthetically. It requires a more nuanced discussion than the rate-a-record approach most of us grew up with.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

From the vault, a too short favorable review of My Aim is True published in my college newspaper

 If nothing else, one of the things that the Seventies have given rock and roll is the chance for a new artist to regurgitate the most glaring of cliches and be considered by older critics who long for their youthful heyday (first cigarette, the first bout with sex, first visit the free clinic) as something in the vanguard of the movement, a "fresh and invigorating voice that outlines the future of rock and roll," and so on. Bruce Springsteen combines elements from Phil Spector records, old rhythm and blues tracks, and bare rock and roll with the lyrical free form-ism of Dylan, resulting in a pastiche of styles that sounds forced, histrionic and bone dry of motivation. Patti Smith wants to merge early Sixties rock, ala Stones, and "Louie Louie" with the legends of dead poets, sounding in the end merely silly. Tom Waits combines black jazz hep jive with Jack Kerouac and sounds stupid. The more jaded among us from this parade of pretenders are leery of anyone trying the same thing. 

My Aim is True by Elvis Costello takes one by surprise. Like Springsteen, the backbone of Costello's music is old rock and roll. But apart from that, they differ radically. Springsteen has a tendency to stretch his material to the breaking point, pouring crescendo upon crescendo, verse upon verse, trying to create an epiphany that never culminates into prosaic glory. Costello, though, is stripped down to a vernacular toughness, and Costello's singing, similar to Springsteen's but more tactful, is full of buoyancy, emotion, and conviction, without any overkill. The songs number twelve in all on the disc, unusual for a rock disc, and each exists as polished lyrical gems of a cynical, penetrating working-class intelligence.

Costello's strength, a virtue that Springsteen, Smith, and Waits lack, is his ability to use rock cliches for their total value. Costello gets the heat to the meat instead of brandishing them like a set of museum pieces that one is supposed to bow to in historical awe and respect. The rockability stuff is done with a verve that equals Buddy Holly, his use of reggae captures the required gloomy, sinister mood, and his boogie material does a lot more than plot the course for the band. His lyrics, though, are imbued with a seventies sensibility, an awareness of absurdity works minor miracles with motifs that one might have considered as resources of comedic irony in this current,post-hip climate. The gifts would be nothing less than restoring to all the old rock and roll and pop music styles the capacity for emotional impact. Though not notable for originality or innovation, My Aim is True is a real piece of work, and Elvis Costello has an intelligence that can develop into something more complex and rewarding. My aim, for now, suffices as an excellent example of rock revisionist traditionalism.