2009 has been a bumper year for new records by my musical heroes. Had someone told me that in the first five months of the year I'd be listening to new albums from Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, and Bob FREAKING Dylan, I would have been frothing at the ears in anticipation. Unfortunately, the actual results have been mixed. No, that's wrong. It's not mixed if pretty much all those new records are crap save for one. So the results aren't really mixed; they are, for lack of a better term, confused.
Springsteen's Working on a Dream is by the far the best of the bunch. I have to admit that I find it hard to believe that Bruce had never written a song called Working on a Dream before this one. The title song itself is pretty much a distillation of Bruce at his Bruce-est, doing what he does, singing about work and/or dreams, while the E Street Band inhabit every available space with a Spector-esque wall of sound, filled with keyboards, organs, acoustic guitar strumming, droning baritone saxes, and even a bit of the old glockenspiel for the outro. I'm on to it - take a three chord wonder with a chorus repeated over and over and layer the sound like a Black Forest Cherry Cake with extra icing. Just in case that sounds like a criticism, realize that I love me some Schwarz-walder-kirsch-torte, and no amount of icing could ever be too much. The album overall isn't as good as 2007's Magic, but it doesn't need to be that good to still be a damn good record and proof that Bruce Springsteen is still very much in control of his gift.
(Someone remind me to write up my thoughts on Queen of the Supermarket - I still can't decide if it's the most ridiculous thing Bruce has ever released, or just a bad song, or a stroke of genius that I just don't quite get.)
Neil Young, on the other hand, has about as much quality control and product consistency as the lunch ladies at my high school cafeteria. Sometimes those nachos were crispy and delicious with the perfect cheese to jalapeno to corn chip ratio, but the next day you got a bowl of gooey ooze that tasted and looked like baby food. And so it is with Neil Young's output. Promoting the latest broadside, Fork in the Road, our local/national (in NZ local and national is pretty much the same thing) classic rock radio station said that if anyone other than Neil Young drove across American in a battery powered "heavy metal Continental" and recorded an album about it it would be f**king gay. They were pretty much correct, other than the "except Neil Young" fine print. The album is terrible. Somehow Neil actually sings, with a straight face apparently, lines like, "The awesome power of electricity/Stored for you in a giant battery" and "running low on the people's fuel/riding around in something really cool." Worse, he refers to himself as the Motorhead Messiah. Really.
The death of Stooges guitarist and Iggy Pop sparring partner Ron Asheton puts to bed any hope of a better Stooges reunion album than 2006's The Weirdness. That record was crap, but it was fairly harmless as anyone who would have listened to it already had classics like the self titled debut and Fun House. And fortunately the shows the Stooges played over the last several years convinced anyone who saw them that a, Ron Asheton was a ground breaking guitar hero who never got his due, and b, Iggy Pop is still a human pogo stick, that is, if pogo sticks had great abs. Iggy Pop's Preliminaires opens with the mourning Stooge reciting French poetry. In French. Over a moody bass line with congas in one ear and a vibrato heavy keyboard drone in the other. Jesus, the sax solo just came on. You have got to be freaking kidding me. About as far of a cry from Now I Wanna Be Your Dog as you could ever cringe over. But having said that, I am a pure sucker for Iggy's baritone with some soft and mellow production ("Fucking Alone" off American Caesar is a forgotten classic). The music press has given him a ton of shit for his lyrics over the last several records, and Iggy is certainly no Dylan, but "You can convince the world/That you're some kind of superstar/ When an asshole is what you are" is pretty bad even for a guy whose last album included the line "Baby take a look at me/ My dick is turning into a tree." Bottom Line: Iggy Pop and smooth jazz, in any language, is gonna be an acquired taste. This one might take awhile, if I ever get around to listening to it again.
Elvis Costello has put out a country record called Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane. It's not an embarrassment or anything, but other people do country a hell of a lot better. Not many do rock better than Elvis Costello & the Attractions/Imposters, so one wonders why Costello can't be satisfied being one of rock's best singers and songwriters, period. Dude, you really don't have to put out country records or duet albums with Burt Bacharach or do gigs with Allen Tussaint. Buth then again, I guess if I could shit out albums as good as Momofuku in a week, I might start looking for other challenges as well.
And finally, Bob Dylan should really get his own post. But who am I to critique his Bobness? He can do whatever he wants, and usually does, and lately (as in about the last 12 years or so), Dylan's late career output has only added to his already insurmountable legend. Together Through Life proves once again that Dylan listens to a lot of really old music. I thought I was bad for thinking London Calling was the last true classic by a young-at-the-time-band ever recorded (when I was 4), but Dylan acts like Elvis was the end of music. Bob has basically mined folk, blues, and country for workouts that his frankly shit-hot band could probably play in their sleep. So, yeah, the playing is great, the Dylan croak is just a tad worse than on the last record, but this one is just kind of there. I've still not sat down and listened to the whole thing in headphones to take it all in, and I suppose I should before deciding what I really think about it.