Prince at 55: Career-revitalizing lessons from other icons
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate Prince's 55th birthday. And while the Purple One's prodigious back catalog and outsized persona will always be one of the charismatic beacons for the Twin Cities music scene (and the world), there is no question that as of late, his output has been slipping. Prince's recent songs have been substandard, especially when you compare them to the inventive anthems of his past.
Here at Gimme Noise we've examined the late-period revivals of some other iconic musicians to see if Prince can perhaps learn a thing or two from how these artists resuscitated their careers and revitalized their sounds, despite growing a bit long in the tooth.
There are some Dylan purists who believe the old bard has never taken any career downturns, but the unfocused creative direction he was heading in following the release of the uninspired Under the Red Sky in 1990 (at the age of 49) gave even longtime fans a reason to pause -- even after the success of Oh Mercy just a year prior. And while Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong represented a wistful return to Dylan's folk roots and the songs and artists who inspired him, both of those records were mostly devoid of any original music, so it was hard to know if Bob still had the muse at his ear at that late point in his career.
But Time Out of Mind, released in 1997 when Dylan was 56, removed all of those doubts, and launched a late-period revival for the legendary songwriter that continues to this day. The songs on that album featured a warm, intimate sound due to the consummate production of Daniel Lanois, with Dylan brazenly refusing to hide the weathered rasp in his voice -- which gave the already brilliant material a rugged depth and a genuine vulnerability.
Dylan had obviously been saving up some of his best work for Time Out of Mind, and each track bristles with his poetic insight and well-earned creative acuity. After releasing nearly an album every year since the late '70s, Dylan spent four years crafting and fine-tuning this record, and it clearly shows -- both in the strength of the material itself, and in the intimate way those songs were recorded, with Dylan assembling a crack band behind him to help him realize his artistic vision.
Lessons Learned: In this modern era when artists can record something and release it to the world with just a few clicks of a mouse, Prince can learn from Dylan's example that not every creative idea need be released, and that you can retreat into the studio for a few years and people will still remember who you are when you reemerge. Prince should reach out to the musicians and producers that he's worked with in the past, as well as continuing his collaborations with new artists that catch his ear, and work with all of them and just see what happens.
And use his vast life experiences to craft lyrics that reflect his age, as Dylan did so poignantly with Time Out of Mind, rather than trying to identify with the youth of today by using their slang and catchphrases. But mostly, Prince should spend some serious time poring over his musical ideas in the studio, and if something isn't hitting, abandon it and start over -- rather than releasing "Fixurlifeup" and other dreck that he's been producing as of late.
No musician has mastered the art and intrigue of reinvention quite like David Bowie. He's seamlessly transformed himself and his music from the Ziggy Stardust era to the dignified but druggy elegance of his Thin White Duke period, all the way through to the poppy buoyancy of his '80s work. You never quite know what stylistic shift Bowie is going to take with both his music and his persona, and that injects his best music with a restless creative energy and fresh imagination that continues to this day.
After reuniting with producer Brian Eno to great effect on the triumphant Outside in 1995, and following that up with the electronic-laden urgency of Earthling, Bowie took a big creative step backward with Hours..., a languid, passionless record that was just as feeble as its regrettable album art suggested. However, Bowie rebounded well with the self-assured insistence of 2002's Heathen -- recorded when David was 55 -- which found him reuniting with producer Tony Visconti, and collaborating with artists both past (Pete Townshend, Tony Levin) and present (Dave Grohl), while fluidly melding his previous influences with the contemporary musical pulse of the modern day.
Bowie has never been one to shy away from revisiting and expanding upon old musical ideas and themes that checker his creative past, and in doing so he draws a distinct line from his past to his present, while continuing to breathe new life into his artistic endeavors. On his glorious new album (and first in a decade), The Next Day, Bowie makes the restyling of his past quite clear before the listener even hears a note, as the striking cover subverts the iconic album art of Heroes, a literal and figurative crossing out of the past while also making a not-so-subtle nod to it at the same time.
Lessons Learned: Prince can learn from Bowie's example that while reinvention is important for any artist, and helps them feel current and fresh, you don't need to hide from your past work in the process -- you can enhance and develop those musical ideas and still remain topical. So often it seems that Prince is worried about repeating himself creatively, so he brazenly ditched the raw emotions that coursed through his best work in favor of something far more playful and trivial. Prince doesn't seem all that interested in revealing himself through his music anymore, and doesn't keenly examine his place in the world through his songs as he once did -- rendering his modern material rather heartless and ultimately irrelevant. He needs to quit hiding within his music, and give his fans and listeners more of his true creative self in the process.
While Johnny Cash's stellar and remarkably consistent creative output is enough to rival any artist of the 20th century, his work in the late '80s and early '90s was reduced to niche albums that reached country fans as well as the country charts, but didn't penetrate the outlying music scene at large. Cash's various Greatest Hits packages kept on coming, with another disenfranchised suburban teenager discovering "Ring of Fire" and "Boy Named Sue" with every release, but for the most part the Man in Black remained woefully undiscovered by much of the younger generation, and commercially abandoned by a majority of his older fans.
After a series of late-'80s albums that featured Cash collaborating with a roster of talented but unsurprising contemporaries failed to generate much excitement within the country music community, his contract with Mercury Records finally expired, leaving Cash a free agent at the age of 59. It was at this point that Cash hooked up with the legendary producer Rick Rubin, who had recently parted ways with Def Jam (a label he founded in 1983) and started his own offshoot, Def American, which soon became American Recordings. The first project Rubin took on at his label was recording and releasing a new record from Johnny Cash that would also be known simply, and perfectly, as American Recordings.
That album, and Cash's subsequent stellar releases with Rubin, would make him not only culturally relevant to a whole new musical audience, but would revitalize Johnny creatively during his later years, as he churned out some of the best, and most affecting, work he had done in decades. Cash famously reworked chart-topping hits by Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Neil Diamond, Depeche Mode, and many others, adding his own well-earned poignancy and pain to the material itself, making the songs entirely his own in the process. And the songs that he wrote on his own during this time also stood proudly next to the cover songs, with Cash no doubt becoming inspired by the creativity of these modern musicians.
Lessons Learned: Cover albums have certainly fallen out of favor in the modern musical climate, where children of the MP3 age can get behind a cover song by an artist they love but don't really have the patience for an entire record filled with them. But Prince could be well-served by going this route (despite his off-kilter instrumental cover of Pearl Jam's "Even Flow" at his recent gig at Myth), adding his own distinctive flair and boundless spirit to some songs that have meant something to him over the years, while also identifying with the contemporary hits of today. Perhaps by immersing himself in the anthemic, moving material of others, Prince can find his own way forward creatively, and start making stirring songs of his own once again.
In sum, happy 55th birthday, Prince. The years have been kind to your appearance and intrigue. Let the lessons of these fellow icons lead you to the gift of further glory.
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