Saturday, October 16, 2010

Final Albums

Closing statement or last gasp for air, the final release of an artist is in some ways the benchmark for everything else that has been achieved up to that point. Did they stay the course? Did they forge into new and unexpected territories? Did they slowly fizzle and fade into mediocrity and ho-hum obscurity? Ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide, so here are a few of my thoughts on some farewell efforts.

The Velvet Underground – Loaded (1970): With Lou Reed it was always about songwriting, the difference was in the approach. After turning the basic pop song on its ear with Nico and White Light/White Heat, the post-John Cale VU headed for a more straightforward but no less interesting form of rock, and Loaded, the final release with Reed, has been a blueprint to accessible-but-not-mainstream music for the past forty years. Despite inner tensions, the Velvets were never more focused, consciously structured or consistently melodic. Some of Reed’s best known tunes (Sweet Jane, Rock & Roll) are found here, but these are hardly the best moments of the album, with the bittersweet opener Who Loves the Sun, the grit-rocker Cool It Down, the majestic New Age and the straight up epic Oh! Sweet Nothing stealing the stage, the spotlight, the glory and the whole kit-n-caboodle. Lou certainly stepped out to go solo on a high note, though, with the possible exception of Transformer, he never hit such heights again.

Tim Buckley – Look At the Fool (1974): Tim Buckley’s career was a hodgepodge of musical exploits where lyrical themes rarely strayed far from matters of the heart and conscience in all forms, but where genres ranged from folk to rock to free jazz to avant-garde to white funk and Philly soul. Behind all of this was the weapon of his magnificent voice, an alleged five full octaves, that could coax the most haunting melodies imaginable from thin air or split the sky with shrieks of primal longing. In most if not all cases much of what he’d done musically had been tinkered with before, but if Buckley didn’t reinvent the wheel he certainly took it places and made it do things no one else ever had (and few have since). His vision was great, his scope was boundless and some groundbreaking albums were made (Goodbye and Hello, Happy Sad, Starsailor). Unfortunately, this ambition did very little to endear him to a public who mainly had no ear for animalistic jungle cries amidst a barrage of congas and frenetic guitar workouts and this, coupled with his substance abuse, soon found Buckley in the early 70s with a greatly dwindled audience from his late 60s heyday. The result of this realization was a retreat to more friendly territory, though instead of (going backwards and) re-embracing the melodic folk rock that first brought him notoriety he put out two albums of poorly received soul rock intended, so they say, to be little more than radio fodder. By his last album, Look at the Fool - which they also say was a title he fittingly coined for himself - he was basically out of ideas, material and direction. So they say. But I beg to differ. Perhaps some of these implications are true, but I believe as an artist Buckley was simply trying something new, and while Look at the Fool may not have the grandiose sway of Goodbye and Hello or the longing-eyed wonder of Happy Sad, it is a pleasant, often spirited offering of mid to up tempo songs intended to do nothing more than bring a tap to your foot, a hum to your lips and joy to your heart. And perhaps he was displeased with the results, perhaps he knew he was putting out a bunch of “uninspired filler” to a now indifferent crowd, but is the purpose of music to always blow our minds and show us undiscovered directions? No. Sometimes it’s just escapism, a feel good tune for a stressful day, which is what Look at the Fool delivers in spades, and which is what makes it a highly enjoyable, accessible and ultimately successful album. Yes, his voice is a bit worn and ragged (a big complaint from most all critics), but it’s no less impassioned, immediate or inspired, and he treats each number as if it were another Song to the Siren, from the expressive croon of the title track opener to the “Louie, Louie” beach party feel good of Wanda Lou. Sadly, Buckley died in 1975 of a supposed drug overdose, so we’ll never know if this was really it for such a masterful musician or if he was beginning to rally himself (his last concert in Dallas was sold out after all) for a stint of renewed reinvention and revelation. Many fans and critics wonder this fact and lament the low point finality of Look at the Fool. And that’s fine; each listener is entitled to their own opinion. But if you can get through Lorca (a respected but difficult release) without some form of a headache by the close of Nobody Walkin’, I’ll be surprised. However, with Look at the Fool you may not be blown away into new musical territories, but by the end there should be a smile on your face…and I bet you’ll play it again.

10,000 Maniacs – Our Time In Eden (1992): Though the band continued on to more minor success, the classic Natalie Merchant-lead line up of 10,000 Maniacs’ last album, Our Time In Eden, is the culmination of 10 years slogging through the scene and finely honing their jangle pop into a sleek, effortless sheen that befits the pomposity (in a “good” way) of Merchant’s presence both lyrically and vocally, without losing all of the “punk” edginess of earlier days. Though two years earlier she’d already decided to leave the band around this time, Merchant couldn’t have picked a better opportunity to launch a solo career, as not only commercially but creatively Our Time In Eden contains 10K M’s greatest and most enduring songs, unmarred by 80s production, and showcasing the band’s pop sensibilities that appealed not only to the college-somethings that helped get them there, but also garnered the praise of an older adult alternative audience due to a mature sophistication tempering the social awareness of Merchant’s lyrics and general presence. But with all of that aside, Our Time in Eden is simply a fantastic album, springing forth almost of its own accord (the jump forward from 1989’s rather stifled Blind Man’s Zoo is astounding), opening up your heart, soul and mind with an urgent yearning that’s thrilling, beautiful and frightening due to the sheer power of these songs. With the exception of the tedious throwaway Circle Dream, this is a flawless album from the moody, understated piano intro of Noah’s Dove to the echoing lilt of I’m Not the Man, bringing an album of emotional peaks and valleys to a circular, poignant and sobering close that tapers off into fresh, if never as successful (creatively), beginnings for all involved.

The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Comes (1987): Every Smiths album is the same, however, every Smiths album is distinctly different – the same because it’s the ever-brilliant songwriting of Morrissey/Marr but different in the way they, along with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, approached their craft. Strangeways, Here We Come was not intended to be a farewell at the time of its inception, but a (rush and a) push in a new direction. And yet once one learns the inside scoop, in some ways it’s obvious that the band was saying their good-byes. Throughout there are “hints” of an ending, of a death, of an afterlife or at least an after-state. From the opening lines of “I am the ghost of troubled Joe…” to the closing thoughts of “I’ll see you sometime, darling…” the idea of separation is prevalent and many of the songs in between – I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard this One Before, Paint a Vulgar Picture – help to somewhat fill in the gaps. In other instances it’s just Morrissey at his morbidly clever best (Girlfriend in a Coma, Unhappy Birthday) and Marr & Co are in top form as always, delivering flawless performances on previously “non-Smithsish” but equally staple tracks like the melancholy majesty of Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me and the slinky creep found on Death of a Disco Dancer. With these themes of closure in mind (and hindsight) it’s a fine finale, tying up the sentiments of all parties to a crooked T; but musically it’s a bit of a cliffhanger, and one wonders what could and should have come next, as Strangeways points into a distant destination that was not (and will never be) reached…at least as a cohesive unit. Future projects post-Smiths, of course, are a different matter and one can’t help but wonder what early-Morrissey standouts like Suedehead or Everyday is Like Sunday would have been like with Marr and the boys behind him…or would they have even existed at all? Hmmm, probably best not to speculate.

The Doors – L.A. Woman (1971): The final Morrison-era Doors album comes around full circle (pun reference intended) to the blues infused rock of their debut, yet L.A. Woman is also an effort far removed from the sentiments of Light My Fire and the Crystal Ship, and especially the psychedelic posturing of Break On Through and The End, with even the swagger of Soul Kitchen and blues standard Back Door Man looking pale against the earthy grit of the Lizard King’s last offering (in this lifetime) to the world. Part of this is due to Bruce Botnick’s rough n ready production, but even more, a distinct weariness bleeds through in the songs themselves, especially in Morrison’s gravel shod vocals and Krieger’s thick, growling guitar play. After years of touring, excessive living and the more recent tribulations of legal woes, this was a band that for all intents and purposes had had it, and it shows. But that doesn’t mean the music is half-hearted or uninspired, in fact quite the opposite. L.A. Woman shows a band tired but looking to reignite themselves (by going back to their roots) and showcases some of the Doors’ finest moments from the rollicking Love Her Madly to the beautiful – even ironically poetic as a JM swansong – Riders On the Storm. A smash hit then and an undisputed classic now, L.A. Woman stands as a credit to creating art not despite of but because of turmoil and uncertainty, with the idea that the end could have actually been the beginning in a new era of the Doors. Of course we’ll never know.

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