As Easter marks a period of rebirth and re-evaluation, so has the first quarter of the year, with some monumentally significant returns from modern music’s most seminal artists.
The reinvention of an artist following a period of inactivity or – worse – a downturn in profile or creativity occurs so infrequently; thus is the law of diminishing returns that applies as time passes and defining records resonate an unfair advantage, holding up a benchmark for everything that comes after. Sometimes the opposite is true: there are a select few who have bounced back with a surprising response, as if the time away really did do them good or they somehow found their mojo again.
This year, My Bloody Valentine, David Bowie, Suede and The Strokes are among those that have returned with records of varying quality, some of them equalling their best work, others not so much.Given the biblical significance of today, here’s a selection of some of the best albums that not only marked a comeback for their respective creators but added a defining chapter in their artistic development.
At the end of the sixties, Elvis Presley’s career was hurting from the rapid production-and-release schedule around the 20+ movies he’d made in that decade, each with its own soundtrack album. He hated much of the material he was tasked to sing and by the time of 1967′s Clambake, record label executives finally realised the joke he’d become. The former king of rock ‘n’ roll was simply no longer relevant to anyone but his die-hard fans.
In 1968, a one-off TV show set out to change that. What we now know as the ‘Comeback’ special, the show (simply titled ‘Elvis’) set out to remind the world why they fell in love with the quiffed boy from Tupelo, Mississippi in the first place. Drafting in the two surviving members of Elvis’ original band (Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana) and covering some of his greatest late-’50s tracks, the special pre-figured the format of MTV’s Unplugged series by many years.
During recording, Elvis had remarked that ” never sing another song that I don’t believe in, I’m never going to make another movie that I don’t believe in”. The next record, From Elvis to Memphis, was released to capitalise on the success of the special and has been described as the one of the greatest white soul records ever made. The album’s only single ‘In The Ghetto’ is as iconic a performance as ‘Jailhouse Rock’ or ‘An American Trilogy’. Rolling Stone awarded the record five stars, noting “his fully engaged, newly energized voice finds its most logical album setting in years.”
You Are The Quarry is not the best record by Morrissey but it is the one that pulled the former Smiths man out of a career low and placed him at the centre of an entirely new audience – one that wasn’t necessarily familiar with the hit-and-miss of his post-Smiths career up to the end of the ’90s and largely ignorant of the back-and-forth between the singer and the music industry/press throughout that decade. They knew The Smiths and that was all that mattered.
Dropped by his record label following 1997′s Maladjusted , Morrissey had retreated to the Hollywood Hills, setting up base in a house once owned by Clark Gable. Emerging after a seven year hiatus, he curated London’s annual Meltdown Festival, gave his first full-on TV interview in 17 years (to Jonathan Ross) and even managed to get the New York Dolls to reform.
The musical climate was primed to accept him again – in his absence, an entirely (new) generation had grown up with the likes of The Smiths and Joy Division as musical touchpoints, particularly in America. You Are The Quarry was his most personal record to date too. Lyrically rich, the album’s Tory-baiting lead single ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ announced the quiffed one’s return and as as statement of intent, it even dropped the double quotes that framed the title of every album he’d released previously.
It took Jack White to help channel the core strength of Loretta Lynn – namely her voice – and in the process create a record that recalled a similar success, that of Cash and Rubin’s American Recordings project.
Throughout much of the ’80s and ’90s, Lynn had focused more on touring than releasing music and by the time she hooked up with the former White Stripe in 2004, it had been almost two decades since she’d even dented the US top 20.
“I’d play tambourine on this record, if that’s it,” White said of Van Lear Rose. “I don’t care. I just want to be in the same room with her and to be able to work on this.” The lyrics used by Lynn were apparently taken from a cupboard filled with half-written material, including one song ‘Have Mercy on Me’ that was originally meant for Elvis.
Van Lear Rose was cut in twelve days on eight tracks and White’s aim was not to overthink the production, simply wanting to capture Lynn’s incredible voice in one take wherever possible. The result was Lynn’s finest long-player to date, the equal of her great singles and simply one the the most kick-ass country albums you’ll ever hear.
Jonny Cash’s collaboration with Rick Rubin was his 81st record but ranks as one of the country singer’s defining releases.
Def Jam founder and producer Rubin sought to capitalise on the raw power of Cash’s voice – which suited the (then) 52-year old who had always been at odds in the studio over the way his vocals were matched to backing arrangements. A long-time fan of the singer, Rubin put Cash in his living room and recorded the album right there, accompanied only with a guitar.
The selection of tracks – some Cash originals surrounded mostly by covers of modern classics as well as commissions from the likes of The Misfits’ Glenn Danzig – could have been gimmicky were it not for the way they were delivered. Reducing the guts of songs like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ or Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast In Me’ to such a sparse arrangement allowed Cash’s personality – the real one – to finally emerge and cast those songs in an entirely new light.
By the middle of the 1980s, Kevin Rowlands’ taut and disciplined gang Dexys Midnight Runners was beginning to seem like a spent force.
After the triumphs of 1980’s incendiary debut Searching for The Young Soul Rebels – youthful, fiery, bringing a new energy and intensity to soul music, and its world-conquering follow up in ’82 Too-Rye-Aye that saw the band morph from a grave-faced donkey jacketed to celtic gypsy farmers, somehow remaining credible while still generating bona fide chart smashes like ‘Come on Eileen’ – the cracks that had always threatened to widen did just that during the fractious recording of Don’t Stand Me Down. Now considered a lost classic, that album’s mixed critical reception in 1985 was not helped by Rowland’s personal issues at the time, issues which were to only worsen in the wilderness years that followed, and his (probably related) refusal to release any of its tracks as singles.
Failed Dexys reunions, poorly-received solo comebacks and increasingly problematic issues characterised Rowland’s 1990s and early 2000s, the demise of Creation Records, to whom he had signed at the end of the 90s, seeming like the final knell for his – and his band’s – career in music.
How great, then, as well as surprising, to witness last year’s re-emergence. Now simply called Dexys, the band’s latest incarnation included both original members and new recruits, and brought an album – One Day I’m Going To Soar – and an accompanying live show that was brave, confessional, and yet somehow, despite it all, joyous, optimistic. Tackling many of his issues head on, in a way that only Rowland perhaps would have quite the balls to do, and reminding us of what made the band so good in the first place without simply resting on past laurels, it was wonderful to witness the return – invigorated and back on form – of such an original, valiant, challenging and powerful voice.
22 years is a long time between records. In the decades between Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s seminal shoegaze kiss-off, and this year’s sudden mbv, wars were fought, won and lost. Regimes fell, the Internet happened. Entire musical scenes and genres came and went.
Up until late last year, it was anyone’s guess whether the band – reunited in 2007 for a five-night residency at London’s Roundhouse – would ever produce another record.
Of course there was meant to be a follow up to Loveless. Kevin Shields took the band’s quarter-million pound advance from signing to Island Records in October 1992 and sunk it into that most cliched of band money pits: a home studio. Technical problems, writer’s block and other reasons were cited for being unable to produce anything substantial in the following years and in 1999 it was reported that 60 hours of material had eventually been delivered to Island. Shields later confirmed a full album’s worth of tracks had been abandoned due to lacking “spirit”.
The band’s third record wasn’t so much the start of a comeback but the culmination of one. News of mbv might have emerged last November but with Shields’ track record, it was really anyone’s guess. A quip that “the album is coming out in two or three days’ at a South London show in January” met similar disbelief from most quarters, despite the band airing some new tracks. Such was the implausibility of the situation.
When the album finally did come, it was without warning or fanfare. Late on the evening of 2 February, a press release was pushed out and My Bloody Valentine’s website suddenly sprang to life, offering the band’s third record for instant download.
Erik Thompson, reviewing the record for Best Fit, wrote “[mbv is] both a study in delicate patience and refined artistry” while Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson found the same quality, noting that “mbv sounds like the product of great effort, of meticulous work to get every sound in place.”
Almost everyone took pains to formulate a similar response: that 21 years was actually worth the wait for something so sublime and considered.
The very essence of what we call a “comeback” record is usually distilled into recovery from a barren artistic phrase, whether through the absence of creativity of simply just sub-par product. The return of Welsh trio Manic Street Preachers in 1996 was shaped via a very different and tragically singular set of circumstances.
By the late summer of 1994, the band – then a quartet – had delivered what many considered their most accomplished record to date. The Holy Bible was a beautifully ugly, uncompromising and unsettling album that ranks as one of the best British guitar records of the last thirty years. Its stark, richly layered lyrical content and stripped back production was the very antithesis of the mid ’90s musical climate. It was, in many ways, a truly homegrown response to grunge, which the Manics had processed and regurgitated in their own unique way.
The disappearance of Richey Edwards – on paper the band’s co-lyricist and guitar player, but in reality the living embodiment of the band’s nihilistic agenda and style as well as the semi-darling of the lefttfield music press – was very much a full stop for the band. Along with bassist Nicky Wire, Edwards formed the beating heart of the band. He was the carrion of their day to day communications; a vessel full of charm, cockiness and eloquence. The combination of his hyper-intelligence and a sensitive mental state (he once sliced open his chest with a Japanese ceremonial knife during a London show) was instrumental to the band’s fanatical fan base; the so-called “cult of Richey” who dominated the front rows at most of the Manics live shows.
Edwards’ departure forced the band’s evolution in almost every way and what came next was as different as New Order were to Joy Division. Everything Must Go, released in late May of 1996 (around 15 months after Edwards was last seen) was both a response and a form of therapy for the trio. A record shot through with undertones of resignation, fatigue and an undeniable sadness, it became their biggest record to date, selling more than two million copies and wining Best British album at the BRITs eight months later.
The record’s expansive sound – unlike anything the band had cut to date – was akin to a Phil Spector production and saw the band adopted by a generation of fans high on the UK’s most high profile musical reinvention since new Romanticism. Britpop was sweeping the nation and the album’s lead single ‘A Design for Life’ became one of a handful of anthems indelibly associated with the mid-’90s bonhomie, despite its actual lyrical content.
On a deeper level the record represents a considerable artistic achievement, softening the harsher elements of frontman James Dean Bradfield’s songwriting and finding a more fitting musical place for the verbosity of Wire and Edward’s words. It marked the letting go of many things: it was less angry, sounded less emulative of other things. There were very few recognisable influences as with their first three records – this was their first truly original release to date, excelling despite (and because of) the sad circumstances around its creation.
Following two frankly mediocre records – One Trick Pony and Hearts & Bones, Paul Simon’s career was at its nadir. Nearly a decade had passed since the singer-songwriter’s last album of note (1975′s Still Crazy After All These Years) and Graceland proved not only to be the necessary vehicle to restore his reputation but a defining record of the 1980s.
Frustrated by the disparity between songwriting and studio recording, Simon’s goal was to reverse the process of finding the life of his music stripped aware once it was committed to tape. ” I have enough songwriting technique that I can…write the song after the tracks are made,” he claimed.
His inspiration for the record came via hearing mbaquanga trio The Boyoyo Boys (whose earlier brush with Western fame came from Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren ripping off their track ‘Puleng’ for 1983′s hit track ‘Double Dutch’) and hooking up with Joseph Shabalala, founder of South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo proved to be the magical ingredient in the album’s success.
Of course in doing so, Simon violated the cultural boycott and was censured by the African National Congress who took his actions as support for the country’s regime. “Music isn’t tanks, we weren’t there to kill people,” he later said.
The album retains its beauty, humour and definition, two-and-a-half decades later, finding unusual relevance in recent years via the influence of syncopated rhythms on modern guitar music. Writing for Spin, Glenn O’Brien wrote: “Graceland is more than the palace of the rock ‘n’ roll Sun King. It is a state of mind that borders on heaven at the intersection of the road to enlightenment and the road to ruin.” Simon even tagged it as ‘the peak of solo career’ and he’s yet to make a record as breathtaking – although his follow-up, 1990′s The Rhythm of the Saints met with similarly huge success.
After spending much of the eighties knee deep in personality crisis, born-again christianity and ill fitting leather trousers, the dawn of the nineties saw Bob Dylan emerge as a tired has-been. 1990′s Under The Red Sky was met with a collective shrug from fans and critics and, after decades hailed as a songwriting genius, it finally looked like the well had all but dried up.
Returning with his first original material in nearly a decade and reunited with Daniel Lanois – the producer of 1989′s Oh Mercy – Time Out Of Mind was a triumph and would unexpectedly launch a creative (and critically acclaimed) comeback that, fifteen years later, the world is still benefitting from.
Deeply atmospheric and haunted with themes of heartache, loss and Dylan’s own mortality, the eleven songs on the record were stripped of riddle – laid bare and completely autobiographical. For once, there was no second guessing or analysing the lyrics: everything here was honest and, at times, tortuous.
Pre-figuring Dylan’s near fatal 1997 heart complications, the album’s pivotal moments ‘Not Dark Yet’ and ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’ would seem even more poignant. However, it was Time Out Of Mind‘s opening song ‘Love Sick’ that somehow hit the hardest: aiming straight for the jugular: the spiteful, depressed delivery of the song’s refrain “I’m sick of love – I wish I never met you” transports the listener immediately into Dylan’s doomed, death-riddled world and, for 70 or so minutes you remain there with him – trudging through the swampy, murky waters of the Mississippi River.
In a career defined by sleight of hand, mystery and wrong-footing your fans, David Bowie’s 2013 record The Next Day was both entirely surprising and totally in character. It’s also one of the best records ever released by the prodigal son of Beckenham and offers up yet another chapter to the man’s artistic development we thought would never happen.
Following a heart attack in 2004, Bowie scaled down his activity with only a handful of collaborative performance in the years since. Rumours of him being near death were greatly exaggerated and on his 66th birthday (8 January), his website announced a new record for a March release, with a message asserting that ” David is the kind of artist who writes and performs what he wants when he wants… when he has something to say as opposed to something to sell. Today he definitely has something to say.”
Pulling together long-term collaborators and friends for the record, The Next Day pulls off the uncanny trick of both augmenting and redefining Bowie’s legend. It is a most graceful artistic execution, that acknowledges its creator’s life and looks for new meaning in the modern world. The Independent named it “the greatest comeback album in rock ‘n’ roll history” and it ranks as perhaps the best album ever released by an artist in the (very) later stages of their career.
We’ll give Best Fit‘s Tom Hannan – who reviewed the record – the last word:
It’s unapologetically self referential, and it pushes envelopes around like a playground bully. It sounds made for massive, flag waving, festival audiences, and its maker doesn’t ever want to play it live. It’s sad, slow, and dark, and it’s also uplifiting, frantic and dazzling. It’s a record brimming with youth, and wizened with age, one of constant contradiction, and singular vision.