Great musicians aren’t supposed to go out in a blaze of transcendent glory. Bands and singers who break up or disappear at the peak of their careers when they can apparently go nowhere but up break the natural progression of musical careers. We expect to become disillusioned by our heroes — to be able to say that we loved them once before they fell back to our level.
Failure and embarrassment hunt these music icons. Bob Dylan is singing Christmas tunes; Paul McCartney got it out of his system early with Wings; The Who, the men who dared to sing “hope I die before I get old,” slummed through a lackadaisical Super Bowl half-time with half their original members and even less vigor.
This might explain the cringe we get when we hear about big comeback tours or albums. These artists didn’t do the hard, sad work. They didn’t stick around and ride the downward slope. These bands broke up and left no tail end to their work; it’s a clean break. And the comeback tour threatens that. Then again, for certain icons of the music world, 2010 may be the year of the worthy comeback. There are enough big bands that are ending lengthy silences and heading back to the stage that the tainted name of comeback tours might be changed.
Rap grandfather icon Gil Scott-Heron released a new album earlier this month — the artist’s first original album in 16 years. Scott-Heron, whose influences included the whole gamut of black musicians, intellectuals and poets from the ‘40s to the ‘60s, was able to create such a distinct style of singing and rapping that, mixed with his aggressively politicized lyrics, was able to make him an icon of the more modern civil rights struggle.
Scott-Heron’s new album continues his same distinctive style, applying sensibilities that were honed in more turbulent times into our own modern world, and they’re more relevant than ever. Scott-Heron is likely to follow up the new album with more releases and possibly a tour, but the aging poet is content to watch all of the attention he’s getting.
“People keep saying I disappeared,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “Well that’s a gift I didn’t know I had. You ever see someone disappear? I guess that makes me a superhero, right?”
Even if it doesn’t, Scott-Heron’s return to the studio is enough to get a lot of people excited. The singer’s willingness to push boundaries was enough to earn him the respect of the most powerful people in music several decades ago, and it’s enough to give his newest album a reason to exist.
For indie fans, the biggest news of last year was about the upcoming Pavement reunion. Music writers have been scrambling over one another to praise the band with the most histrionic compliments, so suffice to say it’s a large happening. Those music writers are right though; few bands left their mark on the music industry in the ‘90s as clearly as Pavement. And their first live show in over 10 years is a cause celebré for a generation of slackers.
From their early releases onward, Pavement rose quickly in certain circles thanks to a great deal of support from music critics. Albums like “Slanted and Enchanted” and “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” have become part of the rock canon, and the band might have found some more commercial success had they stuck around for a bit later. But after tense relations between the band members, a breakup at the tail end of 1999 properly ended both the decade and the career of an important band.
Now Pavement is back for an extensive tour, bringing back their fuzzy guitars and inspired lyrics for another go around. Shows are already selling out in big cities, an audience no doubt made up of aging hipsters looking to grab a last look of the band that helped define a new type of apathetic youth more than a decade ago.
Other groups and singers joining Scott-Heron and Pavement this year include British super-group Bad Company, Nigerian singer Sade and apparently a new rock-opera from Pete Townsend himself. These tours can often leave a bitter taste in the mouth — seeing your favorite group debase themselves is a good way to fall out of love — but these people might be deserving of a second chance. There’s a reason we fall for these tricks every time. You’ve got to have hope that heroes can live up to the hype.