Admittedly, I don’t get as excited about new music as I did when I was a younger man.
Actually, that might not be exactly true. I probably get just as excited when I hear something that grabs hold of my ear and won’t let go, but that kind of sonic encounter just doesn’t come around as frequently as it once did.
That’s probably because I’m not as actively seeking out new music as I used to — understandable considering how life as a semi-responsible adult tends to steadily squeeze out a lot of the stuff you once couldn’t live without.
I also think it has something to do with what I perceive as a lack of creative fire in a lot of the musicians I’ve followed over the decades.
For whatever reason, it seems most musicians simply can’t sustain the emotional and intellectual inventiveness that drove their early work. Some of that, I think, is due to the demands of maintaining a career, the peculiarities of a public life, the desire for a personal life outside of the spotlight and the rigors of aging itself.
Because popular music is almost equal parts commerce and art, I believe a lot of talented musicians spend much of their time chasing after what made them popular in the first place instead of following a muse.
I think the Rolling Stones — and I love the Stones — have been guilty of that. Somehow, the Stones still manage to thrill as performers but they haven’t made an impact with new music for decades.
But it must be difficult for any artist to devote their creative attention to the downward portion of the arc of a career or life. It also seems, however, that the latter years of a life or career has as much potential for creative expression as the beginning.
Bob Dylan, I believe, demonstrated that when he confronted mortality on his 1997 album “Time Out of Mind,” which sparked a creative resurgence after years of irrelevance as an artist.
There are some musicians who have the talent and desire to move to another artistic medium to satisfy their creative urges.
Patti Smith, for example, hasn’t released an album of new music since 2012’s “Banga,” but she has written three memoirs, one of which (“Just Kids”) won the National Book Award.
Bruce Springsteen took that a step further when he released his excellent autobiography, “Born to Run,” in 2016 and followed that up with his show “Springsteen on Broadway.”
“Springsteen on Broadway,” which ran from October 2017 to December 2018, married some of his book’s most insightful episodes to the songs that they inspired. The show had an emotional resonance that was as powerful and moving as anything he has ever done, whether onstage or in the studio. It was a pioneering move on Springsteen’s part, something no other popular musician had ever dared try.
It also seems that Springsteen’s decision to take a hard look back offered him a creative way forward.
Springsteen’s newest album, “Western Stars,” released in June, is the best album he’s made in decades. I would even venture to say it’s his best album since 1987’s “Tunnel of Love.”
Best of all, the album — full of elegiac, character-driven songs that are carried along by a lushly orchestrated, cinematic sound — sounds like nothing he’s ever done before.
But, gratefully, it does sound like it was made by a man who recently turned 70.
What’s more, Springsteen has co-produced a movie featuring live performances of the album’s 13 songs that are interspersed with personal footage and his own recollections. The movie, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, has received rapturous reviews and will be shown at Penn Cinema in Manheim Township on Oct. 19 and Oct. 23.
All that, I’m happy to say, has made me excited about new music. It just happened to be made by someone who first invaded my consciousness in 1973.
Just as musicians oftentimes seem to lose their creative spark, I think it’s also true of listeners like myself.
Though I’m not an artist, I often worry that my intellectual and emotional curiosity is waning, closing myself off to the challenge of experiencing and enjoying something new.
Albums like “Western Stars” reignite a passion for creativity and open the ears, heart and mind.