The new year is all about starting fresh, and reinventing yourself sure ain't easy. So for our first collective collab blog of the year, T&E members discuss some of their favorite comeback albums that show how artists revamped, refreshed and resuscitated their careers.
Kurt B.'s Picks
Artist: Grace Jones
Year Released: 2008
Grace Jones … frightened? It's hard to imagine. Yet throughout the 1990s, she seemed scared of recording studios – or at least of making complete albums. Between 1991 and 1999, she issued just four standalone singles, all but one of them (1993's forgettable "Sex Drive") tied to movie projects. But you can understand where she was probably coming from. Feature film roles including View To A Kill femme fatale May Day (1985) and fashion weirdo Helen Strangé in the Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang (1992) had elevated her to mainstream fame in America, even as her music career steadily declined.
In the wake of 1982's Living My Life, the final full-length of her acclaimed Compass Point trilogy, Grace ditched her distinctive fusion of rock, reggae, and cabaret. Where once she'd set musical trends, now she seemed content to chase them. Frankie Goes To Hollywood castoff "Slave to the Rhythm" (1985), recorded with superstar producer Trevor Horn and go-go outfit Experience Unlimited (aka E.U. of "Da Butt" fame"), yielded a brilliant single but proved far less entertaining when stretched to album length via studio trickery.
It gets worse. Pairings with big shots Nile Rodgers and C+C Music Factory felt more like products of record company boardroom meetings than genuine artistic impulses. Jones didn't merely look like a robot on the covers of Inside Story (1986) and Bulletproof Heart (1989); increasingly, she sounded like one, too, delivering mechanical performances that pale alongside the smoldering emotions and sinewy grooves of her classic Nightclubbing.
Throughout the Clinton era, rumors circulated that Jones was making new music. In interviews to promote his 1996 album Pre-Millennium Tension, Tricky spoke of their forthcoming collaboration. But tantalizing titles like Black Marilyn and Force of Nature never materialized as finished full-lengths. Instead, by 2000 fans were reduced to surviving on scraps: a cameo on Lil' Kim's The Notorious K.I.M. and Danish producer Funkstar De Luxe's unremarkable remix of "Pull Up to the Bumper."
Yet when Grace finally returned to the album format, nineteen years after her previous LP, she did so with a ferocity that lived up to the record's name: Hurricane. On the sinister "Corporate Cannibal," Jones sounds ready to suck the marrow from her enemies' bones, a genuine man-eater once more rather than the snarling caricature she projected on talk shows. After so long in the wilderness, hearing Jones accompanied once more by the Compass Point All-Stars (including the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare) on "Well Well Well" felt like a surge of iron rushing into a long-anemic bloodstream.
Autobiographical selections "Crying My Mother's Tears" and the gospel-driven "Williams' Blood" (a co-write with Wendy and Lisa, concluding with a few measures of "Amazing Grace") simultaneously restored her humanity and augmented her mythology. Throughout the nine selections, Jones and her cohorts harness production technology in her service, rather than subsuming her in it. Even when she comes on like a fifty-foot monster about to flatten Manhattan (opener "This Is"), the muscle that powers the music is Jones' heart. Shoulder pad-to-shoulder pad, Hurricane measures up alongside her mid-'80s best.
Album: Walking Wounded
Artist: Everything But The Girl
Year Released: 1996
In the "anything goes" 1980s, a string of sophisticated, jazzy pop records informed by bossa nova and Burt Bacharach allowed Everything But The Girl to build a modest but devoted international fan base. By the early '90s, however, the UK duo was losing the plot. The Language of Life spawned a VH1 staple ("Driving") as the decade began, but 1991's Worldwide elicited big yawns from critics and consumers.
Three episodes sparked their remarkable renaissance. First, the onset of Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease, nearly sidelined Ben Watt permanently (as detailed in his 1996 memoir Patient). Co-writing two songs with Massive Attack on that group's 1994 set Protection pushed the pair out of their creative comfort zone, and showcased vocalist Tracey Thorn in a wholly new setting. Finally, Todd Terry's four-on-the-floor remix of "Missing" defied record label expectations to become a global chart-topper.
Viola! Walking Wounded found Ben and Tracey embracing contemporary dance music to great effect. The opening 1-2-3 combo of "Before Today," "Wrong," and "Single" interpolated elements of drum and bass, minimal house, and trip-hop respectively; guest producers including Spring Heel Jack and Howie B helped keep the grooves going as the album unfolded.
The move towards the dance floor could've come off as a cash-in, but didn't because it made sense aesthetically. "The things that we're actually borrowing from, in terms of mood and texture, they're similar to what we've always done," observed Watt in CMJ Monthly. "Drum and bass, and jungle, just sounds like futuristic bossa nova to me. It's like Latin music for the millennium." Without compromising the band's greatest strengths – hummable melodies, sparse lyrics, and Thorn's melancholy voice – EBTG completely rejuvenated their sound, and were rewarded with the best-selling record of their career.
Album: Black Gives Way To Blue
Artist: Alice in Chains
Year Released: 2009
Black Gives Way to Blue was Alice in Chains’ first studio album in 14 years, and their first without original vocalist Layne Staley, who died of a drug overdose in 2002. I had my doubts that their new singer, William DuVall, would be able to fill Layne’s shoes, but when I first listened to Black Give Way to Blue, I realized that it didn’t feel like replacing Layne was what the band was going for. Rather than try to imitate him, DuVall was establishing himself as a unique vocalist in his own right and ushering in a new era for Alice in Chains’ music. They didn’t try to relive their glory days and relive the 90’s during their heyday in Seattle’s grunge scene. Instead, the album borders more on sludge and doom metal. It’s a dark, heavy album, and it’s the sound of a band reinventing itself after being away for too long.
Album: Vapor Trails
Year Released: 2002
After their 1997 album Test for Echo, Rush’s future was thrown into uncertainty when drummer Neil Peart tragically lost his daughter to a car accident, and his wife to cancer, less than a year apart from each other. At his daughter’s funeral, he reportedly told his bandmates to “consider him retired,” and after his wife’s death, he embarked on a healing journey and traveled across North America by motorcycle. He emerged from the journey with a new lease on life and a rediscovered will to live and keep making music with Rush. The band got back together, and released their hard rocking comeback album, Vapor Trails. It doesn’t have any of Rush’s famous prog epics, but it still has some sweet, heavy riffs and some of my favorite of Rush’s deeper cuts. Some people complained about the production’s drowning loudness, which resulted in the release of a remixed album in 2013; however, I think songs such as “One Little Victory,” “Earthshine,” and “Ceiling Unlimited” are just begging to be played at maximum volume.
Album: Bad Witch
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Year Released: 2018
Nine Inch Nails almost indisputably put out their best material during their first two albums, Pretty Hate Machine (1989) and The Downward Spiral (1994), and although they have been releasing content more or less consistently over the decades, they haven’t done anything quite as interesting and exciting since then as their newest LP Bad Witch (2018). While I don’t think they ever declined in quality too ridiculously, it’s hard for me not to feel like their music was beginning to sound more and more like cookie cutter pop industrial rock. This new album, however, really seems to have shaken things up for them. One of the most interesting things that comes up on this album is the use of brass instruments, which I can’t remember coming up a whole lot on previous NIN albums. The brass instruments are most notable on the album’s third track ‘Play the Goddamned Part’ which has no vocals, putting further emphasis on the instrumentation. The instruments on this track squeal and screech somewhat inharmoniously, but in a way that makes the track sound unsettling rather than unappealing, and giving it an unhinged feel as if they are being played by psychotic freaks. This harkens back to the sounds of the New York No Wave scene, and some of the early more experimental industrial acts like Swans and Throbbing Gristle, which had a much stronger avante-garde jazz influence than the bulk of industrial music that came later. I can’t say for sure if this was their direct inspiration for this album, but I can say that it gives me a similar tastefully angsty vibe.
It really feels to me like NIN were going for something a lot less accessible and poppy than a lot of their previous work has been, and for the most part I’d say they were successful at achieving this. This album is less reliant on catchy hooks and instead provides very sinister and repetitive mantras that create a sensation of tension and dread, and I personally prefer this approach over making predictable gothy EDM, which seems to be what the industrial genre has gradually devolved into over the years.
Trent Reznor’s vocals also feel different to me in this new album, in they are less expressive and overpowering, which may be caused in part by the more repetitive song structures in this LP. Even though Trent’s vocals kind of take a backseat to the weird instrumentation and factory-like sound effects that go on throughout this album, I don’t think that that’s a bad thing in this case. While I will always love Trent’s expressive yells and shrieks and melodic singing on other NIN albums, and while some of that still is present here, I actually really enjoy this sort of groveling, brooding, melancholy approach that takes over this album. His voice still sounds characteristically eerie and beautiful as it always has, but much like the instrumentation, it is much less melodic, expressive, and accessible; and much more cryptic, minimal, and repetitive than before. With all that on the table I don’t want to give people the impression that this is a completely inaccessible abstract piece of music, it is still much more casually enjoyable than a lot of other more ‘hardcore’ industrial records like those you would find from a band like Test Dept. and Whitehouse, or the aforementioned Swans and Throbbing Gristle.
If I can give only one major criticism to this album, it’s that the lyrics weren’t particularly strong for a NIN album. Some of the lyrics on this album are still somewhat interesting and thought-provoking like you would expect from them, but there weren’t any lines or quotes that really stood out to me. Some of NIN’s most significant and influential moments come from their weird, memorable lines from tracks like "Head Like a Hole" ("Black as your soul/ I’d rather die / than give you control”) or "Reptile (“She has the blood of reptile just underneath her skin, seeds from a thousand other’s drip down from within”), a song which in my opinion has some the grittiest and most fun lyrics in NIN’s entire discography. But overall I was really happy with album, and it serves as a reminder that great industrial music can still be made five decades after the genre’s conception.
Album: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Artist: A Tribe Called Quest
Year Released: 2016
It’s natural to be skeptical of any comeback album, especially from an artist that you love and want to hold onto a perfect image. I remember when Death from Above 1979 reunited after a decade and put out that pretty mediocre album. It wasn’t bad per se, but it totally ruined that idea that there was a band out there who had one perfect album and left their career on a high note without a single weak track. Now they’re just another band with some hits and some snoozers. So two years after the DFA1979 release, I distinctly remember my friend telling me that Tribe was coming out with a new album, and my immediate first response was, “Bummer, dude”. When it finally released and I reluctantly tried it out, I couldn’t believe what a dumbass I was for thinking that Tribe could do us any wrong. This was not only a hell of a comeback, but one of the best records in their entire discography. Tribe brought back their quintessential jazzy, East Coast hip hop sound without just relying on nostalgia for a reaction. The album proves relevant with their always forward-thinking, conscious narratives and collabs with many of their current protégés, i.e. Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, and Andre 3000. It’s not only a testament to the legacy of one of the best hip hop groups, but a touching tribute and final curtain call for the one and only Phife Dawg. RIP.
Album: Black Messiah
Year Released: 2014
The biggest perk about working at a record shop is getting to pick the music playing in the store. Some customers might make a quick comment or inquire about what we’re listening to, but so far in my four year experience of working there have I ever seen so much love for a record as I have with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Not a single customer walks through the door without pausing and having a “damn, he really did that” moment. I think what really hits home about this record, aside from the fact that it practically set a new a gold standard for neo-soul/funk music, is the backstory of D’Angelo’s personal triumph to get to this album, and the precedent it set for the genre after its release.
After the debut of the "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" music video from his ‘00 album Voodoo, D’Angelo became increasingly uncomfortable with his status as a sex symbol. He disappeared from the public eye after finishing the Voodoo tour, eventually got cut off financially from Virgin Records, then spent the subsequent years battling with grief and alcoholism. When Black Messiah finally came out after a fourteen year hiatus, it was more than just an incredible neo-soul record. It was a triumph from an artist breaking down stigmas and expectations in the record industry. It attested his experience of being hypersexualized for consumerism, and continued to evolve his musical themes of racial awareness, the African-American experience, love, and faith. He was outspoken in interviews about how record label executives have tried to "turn black music into a club thing", and even released this album early in the wake of the Ferguson trial outcome. Black Messiah was a reclamation from the music industry's previous hold on his image as a black artist in America, and a spiritual rebirth in the form of poetry, soul, and some goddamn funky grooves.
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