I recently spent some quality time with Falling off the Sky, the new album from the recently reunited dB’s. Naturally, it was the exact sort of mediocre rock record you’d expect out of a group of graying, past-prime legends grasping at one final ride. It’s interesting how, even when our most cherished acts get back together, we never expect much from the inevitable “new album.” In fact we mostly talk about stuff like that in contexts like legacy-tarnishing trash (lookin’ at you, Guns N’ Roses.) But it did get me thinking about the few times where a breakup or a disparaging hiatus lead to something worthwhile. So here are eight comeback albums that beat the odds, one way or another.
Scott Walker’s entire career has been a series of comebacks. The cult-mythic songwriter’s legendary reclusiveness affords him an average of one full-length every decade. However 1995’s Tilt still feels like an absurdly substantial work. Coming 12 years after the much more digestible Climate of Hunger, Tilt is the musical equivalent of blood seeping in from the walls. Pitch black, made of nightmares, spaceships, skeletons, apocalypse, razed landscapes and barren outlooks. It’s almost absurd in its Halloween darkness. Walker’s cataclysmic reentries into our atmosphere are rightfully a musical pilgrimage, but Tilt might be his greatest moment.
In terms of bands most likely to reunite for a permanent, second-stab at a musical career, Mission of Burma was pretty low on the list. One of Boston’s most foreboding post-punk bands, Burma called it quits all the way back in ’83 due to frontman Roger Miller’s tinnitus. They gave us a few powerful, technically-pristine albums and a long, highly-influential shadow. But in 2004, 22 years after the clattering Vs. they casually reappeared with a new record called OnoffON with the same cascading legends that made them immortals in the first place: 16 tracks of clogged-up angst imported directly from the mid-‘80s thunder, and ripe for a long tradition of nose-turned record-store snobbery. The most impressive thing about Mission of Burma is how completely ambivalent they seem about their renewed existence.
We all knew Gil Scott-Heron would put out another album. That’s just what drug-addled, artistically-lost, former superstars do when they’re coming off a prison sentence. You can’t really blame us for expecting a new record to be bogus, expansionary glock, like a sad cherry on a career unfortunately as defined by poor life choices as beautiful moments. So when the airtight I’m New Here arrived in 2010, the world was naturally enthralled. Boasting his charcoal voice and obtuse, avant-garde instrumentation far outside the panorama of your average 61-year old man, it captured the imagination of everyone from Bill Callahan to Jamie XX. It felt good knowing Scott-Heron went out on one of his highest creative peaks when he passed last year.
Loretta Lynn did the impossible. She managed to harness the attention of every chic, musically cognizant person in the world…as a 72-year-old country mainstay releasing her boggling 56th album. Sure it helps when you boast a perennial scene-relevant name like Jack White behind the boards, but it still felt like a long shot. An evergreen voice and a tenured guitar, braised in a gorgeous, autumnal cipher—to be honest Lynn stuck to her guns; she wrote pretty songs and pretty melodies with White only making his presence felt when necessary. The most beautiful thing about Van Lear Rose’s continued relevance is the complete lack of catering from either party.
To be fair there wasn’t any doubt Tom Waits would eventually reemerge. In fact the relentlessly idiosyncratic songwriter seems to get off on mystery and extended sabbaticals. However in 1999, nearly a decade after the neo-classic Bone Machine and the mulled-over The Black Rider, questions were at least being asked. And they were fair qualms, after all, it was the longest break America’s premier street-poet had ever taken. But then emerged Mule Variations, owning not only the greatest album-name in Tom’s discography, it also stands as the de facto entry-level Waits album. Condensing dirty blues, rickety jazz and the usual pulpy, otherworld storytelling. Leave it to Tom to answer any whisperings with unanimous greatness.
Like most of the Wu-Tang Clan (Ghostface cordially excused) Raekwon’s shining moment came in the mid-’90s. The swaggering, pinky-ring Mafioso rap hung like an effortless cool on the musky Only Built For Cuban Linx; it was a potent concoction of youth and street-rap mobility nobody could ever hope to recapture. A sequel seemed destined for gaudy, depressing, long-evaporated bravado. But apparently you can’t underestimate The Chef’s diligence, whose ill-conceived The Lex Diamond Story cracked deep into the pungent recesses of slick, New York-badass outré. Hell, “House of Flying Daggers” by itself totally justifies any embarrassing feuds or soulless merchandizing the Wu has dabbled in over the last decade – and totally proves a guy as weathered as Raekwon still has something left in the tank.
I wonder when Vashti realized she was famous, or at least known. The then-25-year-old folk singer made a record called Just Another Diamond Day in 1970, finding no sales and little critical recognition, and happily faded off into the void. That was, of course, much before her only album started taking thousands of dollars from the especially compulsive record hunters of the world, and much, much before guys like Devendra Banhart were calling her a titan. Lookaftering is a record of “why not?” a record of “oh, I guess people like this.” Recorded 35 years after her modest debut, it’s a quiet, pensive, gorgeous 35-minute thing that practically disintegrates in your hands. The best thing about it? It sounds exactly like what a second Vashti Bunyan album would, and should sound like—absolutely thriving in its inherited legacy.
More than any other band on this list Beyond was a bit of a no-brainer. Did anyone really doubt Dinosaur Jr.’s ability to reform, regroup, and blast sloppy, steel-toed guitar-rock? From the second that languid guitar flex slides through “Almost Ready,” the last decade of Dinosaur Jr.’s nonexistence seemed completely and hopelessly irrelevant. I don’t think anyone even remembers that they were ever broken up. That, my friends, is how a comeback is supposed to feel.