Three at the top of their game

23:37, Sep 02 2014

Every couple of years we get a series of stories about Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or Neil Young - or maybe even Elvis Costello or Tom Petty (maybe it's Tom Petty's turn this year I guess, with his okay-but-not-amazing new album).

These reappraisals tell us that these guys are doing great work still - when in most cases it's been 30 years (or 20 years) since their last really great album. Maybe longer. Dylan and Springsteen fans are probably the worst here - Neil Young fans know to just saddle up for a bumpy ride, that's part of the magic.

But these "classic rock"-related mags need to sell issues in a dying format, in a tough world, so that's what they do. Rewrite and re-sell stories about Dylan's great catalogue or Bruce appreciation. And I'm not, by the way, knocking the best of what these artists do, or have done.

I'm a fan of Springsteen's great work. I named this blog after a favourite Dylan album, or in reference to it. Or whatever. I'm somewhat hooked for life on all of those musicians I named at the top there. But I'm not going to tell you that anything Dylan has done post-Time Out of Mind stands up with his best sixties or seventies material. It does not.

I've reviewed three albums recently from three songwriters who a) never seem to get that kind of press, those glowing career overviews/reappraisals and b) have been knocking it out of the park consistently across 30 and 40 year careers, so much so that across the last decade they might even have actually done their very best work. Or at least work that matches up - still - with their very best. And that truly is no mean feat. These guys are the understudies. They never had that one mega-huge album or big radio hit (or mainstream audience appeal) to propel their career along a level to compare with The Boss or Dylan say. They probably suffered along under some "new Dylan" tag or being that half-generation younger were just lost in the crowd.

Anyway, I wanted to highlight the recent work of three great singer/songwriters. These are musicians I truly believe are getting better with each and every album, adding to very fine bodies of work. Astounding, actually, to think that their catalogue deepens and widens, grows richer with every release.

All three have also shown some musical adventurousness - making studio and live albums, having gimmicks attached sometimes, including diving into new genres or recording with specialist ensembles, solo work and band material, acoustic and electric. There's a huge range on display, not just the same old dirge...and a huge commitment to turning up. To doing the work.

Richard Thompson's Acoustic Classics is one of those acoustic re-record albums - so no new material as such, but it showcases everything wonderful about Thompson, his guitar playing, the songwriting, that voice. And what an introduction - if you've heard the name but not known where to start then this is certainly the place. And if you're looking for a late-in-the-career overview you can take this as a "Greatest Hits" album too. But across the last decade he's constantly upped his game. Each album that arrives seems to improve on the previous and seek new ground. Acoustic Classics never feels like a cash-in attempt in that way that so many acoustic re-record albums do.

Robyn Hitchcock's brand new album is also among his best - and here's a guy that's just been plugging away, album-a-year-styles, learning great covers as well as still supplying the goods with his own songs. He had a strong album last year and here he strips it back, a more "solo" record, quieter, introspective. (His recent appearance on Marc Maron's WTF Podcast is worth your time too, I'm not usually a fan of when Maron interviews musicians but here he got it right. And had a great subject).

And Loudon Wainwright's brand new album is part of decade-strong "comeback" that sees him writing songs every bit as good as anything that earned him that dirty "new Dylan" tag back some 40-odd years ago. Wainwright's been working across country and folk idioms for his last handful of records, unearthing old tunes, still writing new ones himself too and here he returns to what he does best - a mix of silliness and sincerity, some of the best satirical writing this side of Randy Newman, and then, as with Newman, he has that way of really knocking you out with a heart-on-sleeve ballad. It can almost take you by surprise. 

So click those links there to read the individual reviews of each new album from these great songwriters. I really believe that these are three examples of writers and musicians who are adding to their own canon, not just fulfilling contracts and turning up to stumble through work. Each album means something and adds rather than subtracts. There aren't many people you can say that about. So check out these new albums by Richard Thompson, Robyn Hitchcock and Loudon Wainwright III.

And who's your pick for someone with a 40 year career that is somehow seemingly getting better with each and every release? And brand new albums from "old timers" still knocking it out of the park? The obvious other one for mine is the about-to-be-released Robert Plant album which you can stream right here.

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