Rocking into Retirement
Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and Marianne Faithfull’s new releases show aging rock stars trying to stay relevant
Listening to albums put out by aging rock stars is like visiting elderly relatives. We tell ourselves we want to, and we really do mean to, but we secretly dread it, make excuses to avoid it, and pass it off, if possible, to others. Well, good news, kids. We paid a visit to rock ’n’ roll’s metaphorical independent-living community, and everything’s going about as well as can be expected.
Neil Young, for example, has somehow managed to both burnout and fade away with Storytone. His latest album, released this week, features a 92-piece orchestra, a swing band, and a further discussion of the only topics Young’s wanted to talk about since Lil’ Bush left office: the environment, cars, and love. The Old Man’s not naming names here—and that thankfully includes the blatant cross-branding that diluted the otherwise potent Psychedelic Pill and that made Fork in the Road, his homage to his custom electric car, a wreck not worth rubbernecking—but you get the feeling Pono, his hi-fi digital music service, is the real muse for this album. After scoring the Jack White-assisted layup A Letter Home in a Voice-O-Graph record booth, Young must’ve realized that a standards record cut with a World War II-era acetate lathe—even a touchingly earnest one—makes for a lousy exhibit A if you’re trying to argue that MP3s sound like crap. Cue the 92-piece orchestra. That’s how it starts at least, with opener “Plastic Flowers” striking the same chords as the most memorable songs from Harvest and After the Gold Rush (even if hearing Young describe puppy love in 2014 is a little like watching grandpa make eyes at a sexbot). As a bonus, Young thoughtfully released a deluxe version of Storytone, which includes a better, stripped-down solo version of “Flowers,” as well as every other track on the album. “Tumbleweed” and “Glimmer” sound like he might have something he really wants to tell us, but you’re forgiven if you have trouble staying focused. God knows he does. “I’m Glad I Found You” is tooth-achingly sugary, less musically satisfying than “Flowers” but somehow even more sincere in its sweetness. That’s about the best thing you can say for most of Storytone’s other love songs, including the creepy “When I Watch You Sleeping” (key lyric: “When I smell you breathing”). The best thing you can say for would-be environmentalist battle hymn “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” (key lyric: “End fracking now”) is that at least his intentions seem good. The best you can say for “I Want to Drive My Car” (key lyric: “I want to drive my car”) and “Say Hello to Chicago” (key lyric: “You know I’ve been to Chicago, I was here once before”) is that at least it sounds like he’s having fun.
Endless River by Pink Floyd
The remaining members of Pink Floyd, on the other hand, don’t sound like they’re having any fun at all on their new track “Louder Than Words,” but when have they ever? The band sounds about as alienated as any group recording on a private yacht could on this single from forthcoming Endless River. “Louder than words, the sum of our parts,” now-frontman David Gilmour sings in reportedly his only vocal performance on the album (Stephen Hawking lends a much-publicized track, though). Judging from advanced reviews, the carefully constructed, vintage Floyd “Words” is basically a Trojan horse built to conceal about 45 minutes of instrumental outtakes from 1994’s Division Bell, reheated and repackaged for mass consumption as Floyd’s final album. Speaking of mass consumption, Amazon.com reports that Endless River, due November 11 in North America, has surpassed One Direction’s Midnight Memories as the most pre-ordered album of all time on its UK site. It’s been 20 years since Pink Floyd’s last studio album and nearly twice that long since Johnny Rotten (remember him?) was seen skulking around in an “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt, so the fact that the band is going out on a commercially successful medium-high note is a minor miracle. Waters, being Waters, felt the need to kill the buzz by reminding everybody he has nothing to do with any of it.
Waters may have the last laugh though, as the most interesting Floyd-related thing in sight next week will be the digital release of Marianne Faithfull’s Give My Love to London, which includes the Waters co-penned “Sparrows Will Sing.” A harrowing condemnation of modern times that sounds like it’s being played on your molars by a tinfoil ensemble, “Sparrows” is an extremely representative single from an album that manages to rage against the dying light while remaining curious about the coming dark. “Late Victorian Holocaust” features Nick Cave and sounds exactly like its name, but the ballad “Mother Wolf” manages to sound 10 times as intense and 100 times as vital. “Going Home” is agnostic gospel at its finest and most reassuring. But, of course, Faithfull will be worth listening to right up until the end; anyone who remembers her 1979 hit “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” should know to want box seats for her twilight years.
Speaking of the ones who always seem to be worth checking in on, Uncle Bob’s in slideshow mood again. The Basement Tapes Complete, a six-disc collection of presumably every second of audio Bob Dylan recorded with the soon-to-be Band at Woodstock’s Big Pink, offers itself to scrapbookers wanting to relive every moment of the trip by examining it from every conceivable angle at every possible F-stop. Those of us who missed out on Tapes the first time around because you just “had to be there” will continue feeling left out. We’ll be waiting for Dylan’s next new album, even if he seems to keep kicking all but his oldest fans back to the kids’ table.
Just because our elders possess greater wisdom, it seems, that doesn't mean they go around giving it away to ungrateful young punks, especially when they're competing for our attention with decades-old memories of themselves in their prime. We really should come around more often.