The Brilliant Final Act
Anyone with the exact same music tastes as me is in for a great month. On June 12th, Netflix is releasing a new Martin Scorsese documentary about my hero, Bob Dylan, and the best tour of his career. But this weekend, as I looked for some audio to drown out my Tiger Woods-induced sobs, I turned to new music from a different old favorite.
On June 13th, the day after the doc drops, Bruce Springsteen is releasing a new album, Western Stars. It’s a rare solo record, without his iconic E Street Band, but those have given us some excellent songs over the years. “Born To Run” may have paid for his yacht, but solo songs like “Atlantic City” and “Brilliant Disguise” hold equally important spots in his discography. So I’m understandably pumped about the album, and the two singles he’s released.
Everything I’ve heard so far is lovely, particularly the song “There Goes My Miracle.” Springsteen has said that the album is influenced by 1960s pop singer-writers, particularly Burt Bacharach and Glen Campbell, and it shows. He trades his New Jersey bar band sound for a lush, orchestral baroque pop…and it’s just too much fun. I highly recommend the song, and can’t wait for the album.
I hope this is all a sign that Springsteen is approaching one of my favorite rock ’n roll rites of passage: the late career masterpiece.
In the creative world, it’s widely accepted that musicians peak earlier than most other artists. So much of our greatest music is written and performed by people in their 20s and 30s. Writers, directors, and visual artists often do their best work much later (a fact that helps me sleep at night), but musicians often spit out a blaze of creativity, then spend the next 50 years performing those same hits. Not to say they stop writing music, but their later songs are never as iconic.
And yet, so many of the great rock songwriters find a second wind in their later years. They begin putting out dramatically different albums that embrace subtlety, restraint, and knowledge of their mortality. And the results often live on rent-free in the hearts of their fans.
The classic example is obviously Bob Dylan. After some truly disastrous years in the 80s and 90s, and the loss of most of his voice, he released perhaps his greatest album ever in 1997. Time Out of Mind, recorded through an incredibly contentious process with legendary producer Daniel Lanois, sounded like nothing anyone had heard before. It was dark, mysterious, and swampy, with Dylan embracing the “bitter old man” persona he’s since learned to wear so well. Lyrics like “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” were quite a departure from “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but he had found a new artistic voice. He took Album of the Year at the 1998 Grammys, won an Oscar in 2001, and quickly released two more albums that rank among his best. And he provided a template that many legends emulated.
Paul Simon enjoyed a similar late-career renaissance, fueled by the criminally underrated 2011 album So Beautiful or So What. And Leonard Cohen sprinted to the finish line, releasing three brilliant, coal-black albums in his final years. His last, You Want It Darker, was released 19 days before his death, and the grim title track remains one of his most-streamed songs.
I often say “I could go on,” but this time I really mean it. If I voiced every thought I had about Bob Dylan’s 2006 Modern Times, I’d lose the few friends I’ve managed to not alienate with my music trivia.
This phenomenon is interesting, though. On paper, none of this should be happening. Music is supposed to be a young person’s game. And these brilliant final acts are often preceded by decades of terrible music. What changes in these artists’ last years of productivity?
For one, they stop chasing hits. Every musician, no matter how brilliant, is only going to dominate the cultural zeitgeist for a decade. Once in a while someone lasts two, but that’s rare. Tastes change, and everyone gets left behind eventually. These artists are often frustrated as they continue to emulate their original style, yet never receive radio play. This often depresses them, and causes them to stop recording altogether. Then, after years, they realize that their economic dominance is over, and they begin recording albums for the fun of it. They make the music that THEY want to make, and it’s usually pretty great.
It proves that the narrative about musicians peaking early isn’t true. I challenge anyone to hold “You Want It Darker” or “Going Home” against any other Leonard Cohen song, from any point in his career. Same goes for Bob Dylan and “Workingman’s Blues #2.” This music isn’t “good by a 70-year-old’s standards.” It’s just good.
The lessons really teach themselves here. It’s never too late to peak. You can do your best work at any age, regardless of what you’ve been told. And success often comes the moment you stop chasing it. But more than anything, my takeaway is this:
Go listen to all these albums. They don’t get nearly the attention they deserve.