Lately I feel like I need a scorecard just to keep up with all the new music news coming at us. 2011 may be nearly over, but it’s showing no signs of slowing down as we barrel into the home stretch. (Man, count the cliches in those two sentences. You deserve better. Let’s see if I can make that happen for you.)
Things we didn’t know last week. Well, the first and biggest piece of news is that Kate Bush will release her second album of 2011 on Nov. 21. Her first, Director’s Cut, consisted of interesting reworkings of older material, but this one, called 50 Words for Snow, is all new stuff. It consists of seven songs stretched out over 65 minutes, which means the prog tendencies that reared their heads on 2005’s Aerial have only been fed and encouraged. Before Aerial, Bush was MIA for 12 years. It’s great to have her back, and enjoying what appears to be her most creatively fertile period since the ‘80s.
November 1 is turning into a day to watch. First up is that Lou Reed/Metallica album, called Lulu. Turns out, it’s a double album, running nearly 90 minutes. Two songs top 11 minutes, and the closer, “Junior Dad,” runs 19:28. I am even more intrigued than I was before – you know how long songs do it for me. Demerits, though, for introducing us to the name “Loutallica.” That is the thing that should not be.
Also on Nov. 1, Florence and the Machine will release record #2, Ceremonials. Advance word is that it’s mellower and spookier than Lungs, which could be a good thing. Me’Shell Ndegeocello, who gets my vote as one of the most underrated artists in the world, will give us her ninth album, Weather. Megadeth’s 13th album is called Th1rt3een, and it has 13 songs on it, naturally. And it’s a tremendous day for older music, too, as we’ll get the Beach Boys SMiLE Sessions box, a deluxe reissue of U2’s Achtung Baby, and the final wave of double-disc Queen remasters.
What else? A solo album from the Swell Season’s Marketa Irglova on Oct. 11, a volley of Todd Rundgren reissues that same day, a Christmas album from She & Him on Oct. 25, and David Lynch’s first album of music, which sports the very David Lynch title Crazy Clown Time. Seriously, I don’t know what more you could want. This is shaping up to be the best year ever.
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I’m at that age now where some days I feel 20, and others I feel 50. I sometimes will catch myself railing against those young whippersnappers on my lawn, ranting incoherently about artists with one album and no track record and a cover story in NME. Music was better in my day, I’ll say, while clutching my copies of OK Computer and Spilt Milk. But I will also sometimes find myself giving new bands a chance, particularly ones with members 15 years younger than I am. It’s how I discovered Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes, just to name a couple.
So the question is, does age matter when it comes to artistry? I used to think so, and I am coming to realize that had more to do with my own biases than anything else. When I was younger, older musicians held no interest for me – it was the young punks like R.E.M. and Metallica that were really changing the scene, man. Now that I’m older, I have the same bias against younger musicians. “It takes time and experience to really master your craft,” I would say, puffing on my pipe while refilling my brandy glass. “There’s no such thing as a 21-year-old musician.”
As someone likely closer to the end of my life than the beginning, I must say I appreciate when older artists make something sublime, though. Brian Wilson’s return to prolific and brilliant work in his 60s has been inspiring to me, as has Paul McCartney’s recent run of very good records. Tom Waits, at age 61, is still the coolest man in town, and I’m breathlessly anticipating his new one, Bad As Me. And hell, to reference something mentioned earlier, there’s that double album from Lou Reed and Metallica coming out. The greatest metal band of my youth, teaming up with a 69-year-old legend and making a 90-minute monstrosity. That’s really interesting to me.
I’m also a sucker for endings, which is one reason Glen Campbell’s new work, Ghost on the Canvas, moves me. I would never say I’m a huge Campbell fan, even though he did sing the original version of “Wichita Lineman,” which may be my favorite song of all. But the man’s had a hell of a life. A session musician for many years, he played guitar on Pet Sounds, won Grammys for “Gentle On My Mind” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” hosted his own TV show, hit big again with “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And did I mention he got to sing “Wichita Lineman”? All right then.
Campbell is 75 years old now, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He has announced Ghost on the Canvas as his farewell album, the last collection of studio songs he plans to make. (Ironically, it follows his sorta-comeback album from 2008, Meet Glen Campbell.) But if you’re expecting a maudlin stroll through halls marked “sadness” and “regret,” you’re in for a pleasant surprise. You see, Campbell knows how lucky he is, and he’s grateful for every minute of the last 75 years. And you can hear that in every note of Ghost on the Canvas.
Like its predecessor, this new album was produced by Julian Raymond and Howard Willing, and it’s a lush, full-color, glorious affair. It’s star-studded – check out this partial list of contributors: Brian Setzer, Jason Falkner, Dick Dale, Rick Nielsen, Billy Corgan, Roger Manning, Kim Bullard, Vinnie Colaiuta, Josh Freese, Chris Isaak. The album includes two new Paul Westerberg songs, alongside covers of tunes by Teddy Thompson, Jakob Dylan and Robert Pollard. This is the very definition of throwing yourself a goodbye party.
But the album sounds beautifully unified, like a single thought, connected by Campbell’s tremendous, distinctive voice. It’s a joyous album, in love with life – stark opener “A Better Place” is the only acoustic piece here, and it finds Campbell looking back with satisfaction and forward with hope. The rest of Ghost on the Canvas treads similar lyrical ground. Campbell’s own “A Thousand Lifetimes” is the mission statement: “I’ve held the ring of brass and many times smashed it to pieces, each breath I take is a gift that I will never take for granted.”
And man, that sense of peace and wonder is in his voice on every track. Campbell has a terrific time tearing up Thompson’s “In My Arms,” and actually makes me like a Jakob Dylan song, “Nothing But the Whole Wide World.” By far the strangest and, as it turns out, most inspired song choice here is “Hold On Hope,” the beautiful Guided by Voices song from their album Do The Collapse. Robert Pollard’s melody is magical in Campbell’s hands, and sung by a man holding on to his own hope, the song takes on brilliant new dimensions.
Campbell sings songs to God here (his own “It’s Your Amazing Grace”), but saves most of his love for others who have stood by him, most prominently his wife Kim. The final third of the album finds Campbell facing his impending death head on, offering apologies on Westerberg’s “Any Trouble” and pledging devotion, even if “this is not the road I wanted for us,” on his own “Strong.” Finale “There’s No Me… Without You” is another wonderful Campbell original, a song of pure and true love. “I’m never gonna fade away, your love won’t allow me to,” he sings, and then steps away, letting his guest guitarists pay tribute over the song’s final minutes.
This album is, quite simply, fantastic. And it flows masterfully, tied together by half a dozen interludes created by Jellyfish’s Roger Manning. I would like this anyway, even if it weren’t the final album from a legend. But the fact that it is, and that Campbell faces the end with such gratitude and grace and joy, well, that makes this a tour de force for me. Campbell looked back on three-quarters of a century, distilling all of that experience into a few simple themes: life is good, and love is better. Ghost on the Canvas is just a beautiful record, one that could only have been made by this man, at this point in his life.
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At the other end of the pendulum is Laura Marling, and if you – as I once did – believe there’s no such thing as a phenomenal young musician, you need to listen to her. And while you do, keep in mind that she’s only 21 years old.
Marling was 18 when she released her first solo album, Alas, I Cannot Swim. It sounded like the work of a 30-year-old. She’s only gotten better, deeper, more musically interesting since then. She used to hang around with the guys in Noah and the Whale, but she was just too good for them, and she’s gone on to flourish while they’ve floundered. Marling’s third album, A Creature I Don’t Know, is her most accomplished and terrific work yet.
Marling’s songs sound centuries old. I don’t mean that as a criticism in any way – I mean they sound timeless, lived-in, passed down, like the work of Richard Thompson or Joni Mitchell. You may think I’m reaching by invoking those two, but that’s just because you haven’t heard this. A Creature I Don’t Know opens with “The Muse,” a knotty folk tune with a damn delightful turnabout after each verse, and some swell cello and piano work. The song is about inspiration that eats you alive: “Don’t you be scared of me, I’m nothing but the beast, and I call on you when I need to feast.”
Its counterpoint, “The Beast,” is amazing. It begins delicately, with an elastic acoustic guitar figure and Marling’s supple voice, but before long the cello and drums have burst through, bringing this deeper into the darkness. “Tonight he lies with me, here come the beast,” Marling sings, as electric guitars and strings swirl around her, aching for the apex. When it reaches it, squalling and screeching, the moment is breathtaking.
It’s not all darkness and anger, though – some of it’s darkness and sadness too. Take the gorgeous “Night After Night,” just Marling’s voice and delicate guitar. It’s about watching a lover fade away, and it’s stunning. “Rest in the Bed” is similar, but takes on more elements of ancient English folk music, and incorporates a ghostly, lovely banjo. And closer “All My Rage” sounds like a danceable jig, until the first line: “Stole my children, left my son, of all of them he’s the only one who did not mean that much to me…” Believe it or not, the song is a shaft of light here, about leaving anger behind.
These are songs steeped in centuries of tradition, but they sound fresh and vital in Marling’s hands. And that, I think, is a better indicator of musical worth than age: whether an artist has some sense of his or her place in the infinite continuum, some idea of the giants who came before, and how their work can be built on. One of my bigger frustrations as a music junkie is listening to bands of youngsters fumble through the same chords and recycle the same melodies, because they just don’t know they’re overused. They’re flush with discovery, and they have no sense of history.
Laura Marling has never had that problem. Even at 21, she knows more about music than most ever will, and on A Creature I Don’t Know, she puts that knowledge to remarkable use. Her songs are raw yet refined, her voice eager yet weary, her music far wiser than her years, but still full of that vitality that comes with youth. Even a crusty old curmudgeon like me can tell she’s a brilliant artist, and she has many years ahead to keep on proving it.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.