Middle Age is the Best Age
They're Making Music and They're Still Alive

We discussed relatively new bands last week, so let’s aim a little older this time.

Not that old, mind you. I’m not talking about senior citizens like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. It’s a wonder those guys are still alive, never mind releasing new material. No, I mean artists who have been around for 20-plus years, and are still in that middle ground between the blood-pumping excitement of their early days and the solemn elder-statesmen respect of their twilight years. I’m talking about people in my own age group (the middle one) who are still evolving and still surprising.

It’s no secret that I lean toward the more experienced musicians. There’s really no substitute for a large body of work, and for the lessons learned over time. While I’m interested to hear high-profile new releases from newbies like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Vampire Weekend, the upcoming albums that have me on the edge of my metaphorical seat are all from older artists with long histories. Billy Bragg, the Flaming Lips, Todd Rundgren, Daniel Amos, Prince, even David Bowie. They’ve all been so many places that wherever they choose to go next, you know it won’t be well-trodden ground.

Here’s another one: Trent Reznor. He’ll be 48 years old in May, and his seminal debut, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, turns 25 next year. (I remember buying the 20th anniversary remaster and feeling very old.) Those leather pants are probably a little more snug these days, which may be one reason Reznor put NIN on hiatus a couple of years ago. Of course, now he’s touring with the band again this summer, so maybe he just stayed that cool.

But Pretty Hate Machine is a young man’s record, all the-world-is-ending angst and sexual dread. I’d have a hard time accepting it (or The Downward Spiral) from a 47-year-old. So it’s been fascinating and gratifying to watch Reznor age gracefully without losing the core of what he does. I’m still reeling from the idea that Reznor is now an Academy Award-winning composer for his work with Atticus Ross on The Social Network, and I’m stunned he and Ross did not receive a nomination for their expansive, brilliant score to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (The movie was poor, so that didn’t help.) Reznor’s recent output has built on his more atmospheric side, and shown him to be the master craftsman I always knew he was.

And now here is Welcome Oblivion, the first full-length from Reznor’s new project, How to Destroy Angels. It’s the first album he’s made with his wife, singer Mariqueen Maandig, but anyone worrying that this will simply be Nine Inch Nails with a female singer needs to give this a listen. Reznor has found a way to take certain aspects of his sound to a new level while retaining his signature. There’s no doubt, listening to this, who is behind the boards, but at the same time, Welcome Oblivion is unlike anything else Reznor has done.

For starters, it’s the most consistently slow, crawling, spooky record he’s made. Nothing here is traditionally beautiful, like the quieter bits of NIN albums. The songs on Welcome Oblivion are frightening, their sonic corners full of ghosts. It is five full tracks until we get a shaft-of-sunlight melody, and eight until we get something that resembles a traditional song. After brief intro “The Wake-Up,” “Keep It Together” sets the tone – it slithers in on a barely-there beat, minimal synths percolating under a droning sheen, and Reznor and Maandig whispering vocals into the mix.

This mood continues for three songs, slowly and subtly building. The title track sounds a little like a mashup of “The Wretched” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and Maandig is actually given something to sing. You feel like the album is going somewhere, and then “Ice Age” happens. It’s essentially an acoustic dirge, minimal smatterings of plucked banjos and guitars repeating in a hypnotic pattern. There’s virtually nothing else here, leaving the field wide open for Maandig’s high, clear voice. The chorus of this song is the first real tune we get, and even though the song goes on for seven minutes, it’s a left-field highlight.

Even though many of these tracks, like the slow-burn “Too Late, All Gone,” have that patented Reznor sonic buildup, the album lacks energy and direction. That is, until you get to the pop single hiding at track eight. “How Long” remains slow, but its stacked-harmony chorus is a jolt in the middle of this sleepy record. It’s invigorating, and the electricity doesn’t fade for several more tracks. “Strings and Attractors” puts its NIN beat up front, but keeps the focus on its shuddery melody, and even though “We Fade Away” is a bit of a drone, it’s an enveloping one.

Welcome Oblivion ends with three tracks that are practically instrumentals, but they’re not as reminiscent of Reznor’s film work as you’d expect. “Recursive Self-Improvement” is all stuttering beats and electronic blips, while “The Loop Closes” has its roots in NIN’s “Eraser.” Seven-minute closer “Hallowed Ground” finishes with a whisper, its subtle percussion and minimal piano lines supporting a dense cloud of synth drones and harmony vocals. It drives the point home – for long stretches of this album, nothing is really happening. But it sounds remarkable nonetheless, setting a tense and shivery mood.

I’m not sure if Welcome Oblivion is completely successful. Reznor’s lyrics still sound like they were pulled from a junior high student’s journals, and even Maandig’s pretty voice can’t disguise the fact that very few of these songs really go anywhere. But while you’re listening to it, that hardly matters – this album wraps you up in its sound. Reznor has successfully established How to Destroy Angels as its own entity, separate from yet connected to NIN, and has proven that even a quarter-century later, he can still surprise us.

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I’ve been a They Might Be Giants fan for 27 years.

I was on board right from the start, when at 12 years old I saw the videos for “(She Was a) Hotel Detective” and “Don’t Let’s Start.” When “Birdhouse In Your Soul” became a surprise hit, I was in high school, and it was one of my first experiences with the general public latching on to one of “my” bands. I was in college when their version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” swept the airwaves, and rocked out to John Henry, their first live-band excursion, in the first house I rented with friends. I was in Indiana for Mink Car and Maryland for The Spine, and I enjoyed 2011’s Join Us in the comfort of the first home I’ve ever owned.

I say all this just to note that I’ve grown up with this band, and we are both old. Both Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) are in their 50s now, and you’d expect them to start slowing down, or perhaps getting less quirky. But as the years go by, the Johns seem to be more and more excited about being in TMBG, and making the wonderful, idiosyncratic music they make. Ten years ago, they started a second career writing children’s songs, and they’ve made four of the greatest educational records you’ve ever heard. Join Us was a terrific effort, mature without being serious, and their live shows remain legendary.

And they’re not stopping. Out this week is Nanobots, the 16th TMBG album, and it’s a triumph. The album crams 25 songs into 45 minutes, and though many are brief snippets (reminiscent of the component parts of 1992’s “Fingertips”), most are the kind of full-blooded, strange pop songs the Johns are famous for. But there’s a new energy, a new vitality to these tunes – they’re loud, they’re kinetic, and they practically explode with melody.

Opener “You’re on Fire” is a perfect example. It wastes no time getting to the good stuff – that guitar/piano riff, those skipping drums, that verse about towing someone’s car. It’s wonderful, and in 2:41, it’s over. The title track is bizarre, a tale of growing nanobots and watching them rule the world, and Linnell provides a strange mechanical counterpoint in that inimitable voice. But it’s danceable, and the horn section is marvelous. So many of these songs – “Lost My Mind,” the great “Call You Mom,” the grinning “Stone Cold Coup D’Etat” – are vital guitar-pop wonders, easily dismissing the notion of TMBG as a novelty act.

If you need further proof, there is “Sometimes a Lonely Way,” a genuine, heartfelt ballad about failure and loss. “Sometimes a lonely way, taken alive in an un-civil war, trophies in glass displays, rehearsals for third place forever more,” Linnell and Flansburgh sing, their voices entwining before embarking on a “ba-ba-ba” bridge that would make any piano-pop fan smile. It’s the kind of thing TMBG has been writing more often lately, as they’ve aged, and they’re better at it than you’d expect.

Of course, the next eight songs are all goofs, so they haven’t grown that much. Tracks 11-18 whiz by in about four minutes, and two of those minutes are taken up by the marvelous “Secret Steps,” one of Linnell’s trademark melodic circles. “Throw away the thing that tells you not to throw the thing away, you’ll forget to rue the day you went ahead and threw the thing away…” This leads to a string of songs that last between six and 17 seconds, but all in a row, they make for a dizzying few seconds.

On the other end of the spectrum is the album’s epic, “The Darlings of Lumberland,” all of 3:21. It’s an off-kilter, horn-drenched excursion, featuring ‘70s prog harmonies and a slinky synth bass pulse. TMBG stick the landing, too, whipping out the dance-a-licious “Icky” and the sad, strange “Too Tall Girl” in the record’s final stretches. The last track is a 20-second a cappella field recording – abrupt, sure, but it makes you want to circle back and hear this monster again.

There aren’t many bands who can say they’ve made 16 albums. Even fewer can say they’re still at the top of their game, and turning out some of their best work. Nanobots is the finest TMBG album since The Spine, way back in 2004, and though they’ve never lost their way, they sound energized here, full of purpose and direction. It’s a great thing to hear. I doubt I’ll ever find another band like They Might Be Giants, but as long as this one remains this good, I’ll be happy.

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And finally, we have former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who will be 50 this year.

Marr has been making terrific music since I was in kindergarten. He’s rightly celebrated as a guitar god, with a tone many axe-slingers would kill for. Had he done nothing but contribute to the Smiths catalog, he’d still be revered, but he went on to form the swell Electronic, to contribute to dozens of albums by other artists, and, in recent years, to join Modest Mouse, pumping new blood into a band whose other members are all 10 years his junior.

But one thing Marr has never done is made a solo album, until now. It’s called The Messenger, and it’s fantastic. I like to think that Marr finally decided to put this album together after listening to the last 15 years or so of Britpop, and saying to himself, “Enough is enough.” The Messenger is everything you could want in a guitar-fueled pop album. This is probably what Beady Eye sounds like in Liam Gallagher’s head, the utopian ideal he’s aiming for.

The Messenger rocks right out of the gate, with the dark and pounding “The Right Thing Right,” and simply doesn’t let up. Marr hasn’t lost a note as a player, and he was always an underrated singer, but it’s the songwriting that will blow you away here. “European Me” sounds like every great song on college radio in the ‘80s, given a modern dusting-off. “Lockdown” is simply massive, that ringing guitar tone filling the room, that descending riff making me grin like an idiot. The title track is a showcase for That Guitar Sound, and a great song to boot.

If you expect this album to taper off by the end, you’re gonna be wrong. “New Town Velocity” is one of the album’s best, those familiar tones chiming over a minor-key acoustic strum. It’s like a lost Smiths classic, and it leads into the powerhouse closer, “Word Starts Attack.” It’s reminiscent of old XTC, with its jagged lines and jumped-up beat. It caps off an uncommonly strong record, a fitting solo bow for a living legend. What took him so long? I have no idea, but I hope this is just the first Johnny Marr album in a long line. Life begins at 50, don’t you know?

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Next week, probably Steven Wilson, and maybe David Bowie. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter @tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.