Old People Make Good Music Too

It’s no secret that music culture is obsessed with youth: blogs and review sites often center around “break-out” or “rising” artists and are usually targeting a young, often college-aged demographic of hip listeners. Music is often linked to image and coolness, and young people are decidedly better-looking and cooler than old people. This is accompanied by a similar mini-backlash against older artists, who are frequently dismissed as something like “dad rock” or have their current work ignored in favor of their classics from when they were the young people being covered by the press and listened to by the cool kids.

When I made my albums of the decade list a few weeks ago, I noticed that the top of the list was dominated by older, more experienced artists. PJ Harvey is 45, Fiona Apple is 37 and has been releasing music since she was 19, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is 52, Björk is 49, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses is 48, Kate Bush is 56, Mary Timony of Ex Hex and Wild Flag is 44. This wasn’t a conscious attempt to zig while everyone else zags — they were just the albums I liked the most from the last five years.

The common theme with all these artists is that they’ve been around for awhile. Most of them have released several albums worth of material, often fading in and out of popularity as they continued to follow their various muses. There is also a general perception with all of them that they’ve already “peaked” with albums they made when they were younger. Their albums on my list all were well-reviewed, but they weren’t appearing on the cover of magazines or whatever the equivalent of that is now in 2015. The statement my list ends up making (largely unintentionally) is that these artists still have something to say in their work, and it’s often overlooked in favor of less interesting bands that either drive more traffic to a website or can be built by whoever is hyping them.

A lot of this feeling comes from my own background as a self-proclaimed “wannabe writer.” At age 25 now, I’ve yet to feel like I have any sort of deep perspective or statement to make in anything I write, because I just haven’t lived enough — I’m still trying to figure everything out. When I write, it’s in an effort to improve my craft, and I feel with each essay or story (regardless of quality) I learn something and get better. I don’t think writing random blog posts is directly comparable to making music, but the general concept of honing the craft and constantly improving is something I think often holds.

Nearly all the albums at the top of my list had that feeling in them: they were works that the artists had been working towards for several years, and often synthesized elements of their earlier work in a satisfying way. Let England Shake tied together so much of PJ Harvey’s music, and felt like something only an experienced artist who knows exactly what she’s doing could make. The Idler Wheel… was Fiona Apple’s most confident album, a distillation of what has made her such a popular musician. M B V  was the result of an over 20 year odyssey, and drew on both My Bloody Valentine’s past while also hinting at their potential future. I’ve written enough about Vulnicura, but it goes without saying that a much younger artist couldn’t have made an album that was drawing from years of love and heartbreak.

Purgatory/Paradise is an album that was almost entirely ignored, but was really ambitious, taking Throwing Muses’ classic sound, smashing it up, and re-imagining it. Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow had incredibly deep storytelling, and was a vastly uncool piano-based album with songs that stretched past 10 minutes in length. It was a real crafted work made by someone who takes their art seriously and is good at it. Maybe the most interesting example is Mary Timony/Ex Hex: it was my favorite album of 2014, in part because I felt it sounded young, even though Timony is in her mid-40s. It was an energetic, fun rock album, made by someone who simply knows how to write a great song, a case of an older artist beating the youngsters at their own game.

My appreciation for these albums is part of a type of fandom that I fear is getting less common, which is being a huge fan of an individual artist and following them on their journey from album to album. I always see their careers as being like a story, and albums like these as compelling chapters in them. As the internet bombards listeners with seemingly infinite music and new artists keep being recycled to feed the hype machine, this context starts to get lost — it stops being about the artists and starts being more about whatever sells day-to-day. Each album is just used to feed discussion for a day or a week (if it’s good) and then is forgotten about because something else comes along so quickly.

It is hard to make this sort of argument without sounding jaded at “the kids these days,” and taken too far it can get into the absurd Rolling Stone territory where dinosaur rockers consistently crap out “five star albums” into their 90s. But I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a young band get talked up, only to instantly recognize that it has nearly nothing to do with the music — it’s either because they look like a cool band or they fit whatever story a site is trying to sell. They make the “albums of the year” list once, then are forgotten about two albums later, because some other young band has taken their place.

All of this has instilled me with a lot of skepticism for any young hyped-up band, and an appreciation for artists who have proven they make music that can endure. Youth is often exciting, but in terms of actual artistic statements or expression, it’s hard to buy that so many people my age are actually making worthwhile, memorable work. Sure, there’s prodigies like PJ Harvey, who made Rid of Me when she was 24, but that’s not normal. There’s something to be said for the artists who have been honing their craft for years or even decades, like PJ Harvey now, and are still creating music that has real thought and feeling in it.

2013 Favorites: Throwing Muses – “Purgatory/Paradise”

I think everyone interested in music should watch this portion of an interview with Kristin Hersh, which explains some of her thoughts on the music industry and Purgatory/Paradise, the first new Throwing Muses album in ten years. Among my favorite quotes: “Now Throwing Muses is in the studio again, making, I swear, the best record of our career because there’s nobody telling us that we’re supposed to suck” and “I don’t want to expand my audience; I want to refine it.” Purgatory/Paradise is definitely created with the latter idea in mind: the album also comes with a 64-page book that includes track-by-track commentary from Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo along with photos of the band, making it literally seem like a gift to the band’s longtime listeners (who helped fund the project using Hersh’s CASH Music organization).

Like many bands before them, Throwing Muses have released what you could call a comeback album, with all the fears and reservations that term entails. But in an age full of half-assed reunions and nostalgia-based cash-ins, what makes Purgatory/Paradise so great is that it always looks forward — with nobody telling them they’re supposed to suck, the band is free to make some of the most original and exciting music of their careers. There are echos of their previous work throughout (along with Hersh’s music as a solo artist), but a lot of it is entirely new territory.

Purgatory/Paradise is immediately distinctive from other Throwing Muses albums (and other albums in general) because of its structure. Its 67-minute run time is sprawled over 32 tracks, many of which are under two minutes long, including several that resemble individual songs or ideas split into two parts, which Hersh likened to someone hammering the record with a mallet. Melodies quickly come and go, then suddenly return later in the album like a ghost that is haunting you. In some cases, like “Sleepwalking 1” and “Sleepwalking 2,” the second part appears before the first part. Connections between these two-parters vary: some feel like extensions of the first song, while others feel like re-imaginings that are thematically linked. This really excited the music nerd in me, who likes stuff like album sequencing and construction — playing this album on shuffle doesn’t really work, because the pieces are meant to come and go at such specific times. It also made Purgatory/Paradise one of the albums I got lost in most this year, as I attempted to piece together its fractured puzzle with each listen.

My favorite two-parter is probably “Morning Birds,” which comes roaring out of the gate in the first part with classic early-90s Throwing Muses guitar pop before shifting into an atmospheric acoustic coda that is one of the album’s most beautiful moments. A few tracks later, the acoustic part picks up again in “Morning Birds 2.” Purgatory/Paradise really feels like a career-spanning effort by the band, and these songs show the full range of styles and emotions they’ve picked up over the years.

Amid all the shattered fragments, Purgatory/Paradise does make room for traditional pop songs. “Sunray Venus” shows a rougher side of the band with an intense vocal by Hersch, while “Opiates” displays their more subdued side. “Slippershell” is the band at their most dynamic, with quiet verses exploding into a noisy chorus. Hersch’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever, which makes it hard to try to pin any specific interpretation on these songs — sometimes I like music that does that instead of trying to hit you over the head with a specific meaning.

I’ve always considered Throwing Muses to be one of the very few bands that is truly original, in part because Hersh’s voice (her literal singing voice and authorial voice) is so different from what I typically hear in music. So it’s not too surprising that Purgatory/Paradise is an album that looked and sounded like nothing else in 2013. The surprising part, for me anyway, was just how good it was — it has instantly become my favorite release by the band since 1991’s The Real Ramona, and it’s one of the few albums this year I felt really passionate about. I find it really inspirational when a band in Throwing Muses’ position chooses to continue pushing the boundaries of their art when they could easily feel content with what they’ve done in the past. While it is really geared towards people who already like the band, I hope people who haven’t heard them still give Purgatory/Paradise a shot — this is an album that deserves to be heard.