Watch out, Pitchfork:
Musicians think and talk about music all day, so they have lots of practice discussing it. They hear lots of new stuff and find out about it before most people. They certainly know how the sausage is made. And guess what: a lot of them can write really well. … Writers don’t write like critics — instead, they show us how a musician hears music. It’s organic, relatively free from marketing initiatives, because the writers choose what they want to write about. And, like most music fans today, musicians have broad, often surprising tastes: you don’t have to like They Might Be Giants to be amused by Parquet Courts’ bassist Sean Yeaton’s delirious take on that band; plenty of people will be curious to hear what Laurie Anderson has to say about the latest Animal Collective album; what on earth does Andrew W.K. have to say about the new album from Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices? And Zac Pennington of the art-rock band Parenthetical Girls has an enthusiastic and trenchant take on… Taylor Swift?
Singers’ voices tend to age in interesting ways, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not.
Joni Mitchell’s, burnt (with grim purpose, one suspects) to a dry husk by cigarettes, is an extreme example, as is Robert Plant’s, whose much-abused high register has deserted him, though he seems to delight in combing through its damaged remains. Dylan, of course, went through a phase in which his voice seemed to give up on the very idea of singing (though I have an affection for the weird Jim Nabors-like “country” voice of Self Portrait and Nashville Skyline).
Closer to the present, Michael Stipe’s voice, originally grave and gritty, turned dark and husky, then brightened, cheered up, and became strangely weightless; Bill Callahan’s voice opened, dived, and doesn’t yet seem to have found the bottom; Gil Scott-Heron’s oratory ripened into a splendid growl; Lou Reed’s went kind of warbly, lost its once-unassailable authority and eerie tenderness, and hasn’t been able (or perhaps doesn’t want) to find it again.
There are exceptions, naturally — Jimmy Scott kept his high notes up to the very end, though with a slight wobble; Morrisey’s voice lost its fun but carried on otherwise, Neil Young’s voice seems to have emerged from the egg more or less in its present state, Patti Smith’s grew into the age it once affected, and Mick Jagger’s cartoony honk is a sort of museum piece, a dogged re-creation of a funny voice he stumbled into as a teenager and milked for half a century.
Which brings us, I guess by way of “Dancing in the Streets,” to Bowie, and his voice (or voices) on The Next Day. The choice of “Where Are We Now” as the first single from the record was canny, as it presents a new Bowie voice: plain, vulnerable, a little weary, and — it must be said — old, its glassy surface showing more hairline cracks than when we last heard it a decade ago. But it’s bravely, even defiantly old, and it dares you to do the one thing we’re not accustomed to doing with an artist who has so fully and publicly embraced method acting: to take him at face value.
Earlier Dish on Bowie’s new album here.