MSN Music, Comeback v. Hiatus
When Recording Artists Take Their Time
By Paul Pearson
Special to MSN Music
We all need breaks every once in awhile. Preferably paid leave, but sometimes we just have to suck up our losses for the sake of a sabbatical. And few need siestas as much as the rock stars we have elected to serve us.
Rock artists used to release an album every 10 minutes. The Beatles made eight albums between 1963-67, including "Sgt. Pepper." The Rolling Stones made eight between 1964-68. Even progressive rock artists, known to create works intended to have that chiseled-by-God sound, were prolific with their epics: Rush, Yes and Genesis all released one album per year at one point. In Genesis's case they had to account for a double-disc and Peter Gabriel's being fitted for sunflower outfits.
By contrast, Axl Rose began work on the Guns N' Roses album "Chinese Democracy" in 1998. At press time, it was still uncompleted.
Not that I'm complaining.
There are two kinds of prolonged absences from music-making: "comebacks" and "hiatuses." The dividing line between these categories is sometimes hard to make out, but it definitely exists.
In order for someone to "come back," a prerequisite is that they should first, in some manner, "go away." But "comeback" connotes something less literal than that. A comeback doesn't require the subject to fall entirely off the face of the earth. It helps, but it's not a must. They simply must cease to be who they once were.
The most effective way to stop being a rock star is to stop selling records. That's harder than it sounds. If not that, then a comebacker's performance has to have suffered a precipitous decline, resulting in an extended period of not looking like they were there at all. Drug or alcohol problems help greatly in setting up a latency period for a comeback. (Based on the tactics examined in this paragraph, Courtney Love is poised to have the greatest comeback in the history of all encoded or manufactured art.)
The subject must then unexpectedly return to prominence.
Commercial rebirth is the most obvious and assured way of completing a comeback, because there's nothing like financial success to validate one's personal journey.
There is no better example of the rock and roll comeback than Meat Loaf.
In 1977 he released "Bat Out of Hell," which became one of the 30 best-selling albums of all time. The legacy of that album was prominent throughout the next decade. But Mr. Loaf himself appeared to have stopped recording altogether, which wasn't true. He made four albums in the 10 years following "Bat Out of Hell," none of which were eagerly anticipated. Nobody noticed when they disappeared from the charts. Nobody can hum a single tune from any of them. Probably not even Meat Loaf.
For the sake of publicity as much as art, the singer made "Bat Out of Hell II" in 1992, which featured most of the same players as the first album. Granted, seeing how this album was a sequel to a record of some iconic significance, it went into stores standing a better chance than any of Meat Loaf's previous four albums. But BOOH2's commercial triumph surpassed even the most generous guesstimates: It went to No. 1, produced a No. 1 single and won a Grammy. That's a comeback. And now, nearly 15 years later, he's due for another. "Bat Out of Hell III" was released on Halloween.
Comebacks aren't quite so common these days, because the public is more inherently skeptical of marketing campaigns and images often employed to further the comeback. Nowadays, the comeback can be measured on a humbler scale.
Witness the comeback of Scritti Politti, the front for Welsh musician Green Gartside, who has been making records since 1979. Scritti Politti evolved from an edgy neo-punk artist into a successful new wave pop outfit, culminating in the transatlantic 1985 hit "Perfect Way." Although Gartside had spent years developing his influences -- there was more depth to him than the sheen of "Perfect Way" might suggest -- his momentary appearance on the American charts gave Scritti Politti the status of one-hit wonder. (This is the exact same career trajectory of Chumbawamba of "Tubthumping" fame.)
Gartside bided his time, making occasional appearances with others and enjoying the spoils bought by momentary fame. In 2006, at age 50, he resurfaced with "White Bread Black Beer," which attracted an unforeseen amount of critical praise and a nomination for Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize. Scritti Politti's resurgence was so distinct that his album even managed to pick up American distribution. "White Bread Black Beer" hasn't become a Meat-Loafian smash, but it has put the (weird) name back on the lips of the international indie and music communities. He won't sell as many copies today as he did in 1985, but Gartside matters again, perhaps more than ever. That, too, is a comeback.
There are other attempted comebacks in the works, though they may not succeed to the utmost. David Johanssen and Sylvain Sylvain have reformed the New York Dolls -- two-fifths of them, at least -- and produced the first record under that name in 32 years, "One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This." Though unlikely to set the world on fire, it's a very good record, featuring Johanssen's dueling sides of snide and sincere, and featuring cameos from Michael Stipe and Iggy Pop. (Before I forget: Cameo appearances are greatly helpful in comeback efforts. See Bennett, Tony.)
Most current works from '80s and '90s bands -- particularly hair metal, hard rock or new wave groups -- are comeback attempts. Skid Row, Winger, Level 42, Poison, Queensr˙che and their ilk all had commercial high points that flamed out somewhat quickly. If they manage to reclaim triumph from their theaters and casino tours, they too can call it a comeback. They have not been here for years (and certainly haven't put any suckers in tears).
A hiatus is different from a comeback, though it's possible that a hiatus could end in a comeback. It's really a matter of motivation and the general artistic temperament of the artist in question.
With some very notable but limited exceptions, during a hiatus it should feel like the artist has stopped working. But he, she or they must maintain some level of esteem during a hiatus, preferably one tinged with illusion and mystery.
The hiatal performer must be perceived to have been on some intensively creative path. At times this requires them to be away. Their heritage should remain discernible in some inalienable way. We all forgot about Meat Loaf by 1980, but did anybody forget Stevie Wonder when he wasn't making new albums?
You don't always have to be an established monolith with an entrenched legacy, however. With a hiatus, not only do you not have to go away, in some cases you need never have been anywhere in the first place. We call these types "cult favorites." They take a long time between albums because they are deliberate about their craft, because they go on journeys of self-discovery or because they can't get a record deal.
Sean Lennon's new album, "Friendly Fire" is a great example of a return from hiatus. Lennon's first album, "Into the Sun" in 1998, had its fans, but didn't become a huge commercial milestone. It's a nice, pop-informed work that pleased many, though it did not rewrite the philosophy of pop in quite the same way that Sean's parents once did. When "Friendly Fire" was released in October of this year, it sounded as if Lennon had gone through a wringer of some sort from which music was the only refuge. It allowed him to build a bridge between the willful naivete of "Sun" and the melodic melancholy of "Fire." The new album's impact might not be so powerful if he'd been releasing a new work every two years in the interim.
The artist doesn't have to disappear completely, but a crucial component of his or her image must lay low for awhile. Take the new Lindsey Buckingham album "Under the Skin." It's his first solo album in 14 years, and one the best albums of 2006.
Buckingham didn't stop actually working between 1992 and 2006, as he was playing in the reformed Fleetwood Mac. But that was a successful return to his most popular persona. (That is, if Buckingham had a persona as a member of Fleetwood Mac. Despite his being the primary architect of their post-1975 sound, Lindsey might be the most anonymous superstar ever. Standing next to Stevie Nicks will do that to you.)
Buckingham's legacy has never been in question, thanks to his endurance on classic rock radio. His solo albums, though, take a long time to get done: eight years between "Go Insane" and "Out of the Cradle," then another, whopping 14 before "Under the Skin."
Buckingham's solo work (and "Tusk," basically a Buckingham solo album in disguise as Fleetwood Mac's masterpiece), shows an obvious series of artistic successions. Each album has its own motif of sound, from his lo-fi solo debut, "Law and Order" to the synth-drums and split-level '80s haircut of "Go Insane" to the luscious instrumentation of "Cradle" to "Under the Skin," which was recorded on portable equipment in hotel rooms. Each separate style profile makes a very distinctive statement.
This is in line with the return from hiatus profile, in which each successive work, no matter how long the span between, must feel like an intentional chapter in a career narrative. The desperation for approval suggested by the "comeback" must be absent. The hiatus artist determines his/her/their own reality, commercial performance be damned. Meat Loaf re-conquered the charts dramatically and obviously. The new Buckingham album only got up to No. 80 -- though I personally feel every home should have a copy.
There are more returns-from-hiatus than comebacks, because so few albums cause enough public hysteria to be considered true comebacks. Bob Seger's new "Face the Promise" is the end of a hiatus. His reputation never dwindled, thanks to Ford commercials we all got sick of, and the fact that Seger's one of the nicest guys in rock music. The album was a hit, but it's not a proper comeback because he never really left consciousness. Other recent returns include Jeremy Enigk's great new record "World Waits" and Sarah McLachlan's new Christmas album.
Jerry Lee Lewis' new album "Last Man Standing" is also a return from hiatus, but only because I'm afraid if I called him a comeback artist, thereby implying he had gone away, he might in fact hunt me down, marry me and take my life.
2006-11-08 Number of views: