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BAMM In-Depth: The Comeback Trail

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Here’s another of our in-depth articles from our London-based correspondent Zakia Uddin. This time, she looks at the increasingly prevalent modern phenomenon of the comeback artist …

Justin Timberlake announced his comeback this year
– yes, JT. Put it this way, the 32-year-old’s first release was back when Dubya had been in power for less than a year and the first dot com bubble had just exploded (‘Like I Love You’, below).

The comeback has always occupied a special place in the world of music. Unlike political comebacks, musical ones rarely the same renewed vigor. You don’t humour a politician (or at least we don’t think we do) but the force of nostalgia is enough to get people excited about a singer or band’s return. We’re never quite sure whether to take it seriously – arguably, we’re even more cynical about musicians’ abilities than we are about those of politicians. Will they be as passionate as they used to be? What if they aren’t as good as we remember? What does that say about us? Worst of all, they remind of us how old we’re getting.

There was a more (or less) cynical time – depending on your point of view – when making a comeback was like doing an encore. Or comebacks were only for the kind of musicians who did encores, who couldn’t get enough, and were willing to spin out the old hits for an unimaginative audience. So what’s changed? It’s a real truism that touring is the only way to generate money – correspondingly many bands have sucked it up and gone touring together, including legendary fall-outs like the Stone Roses (below).

Generally, rock music comebacks have always seemed more dignified. It involves a different kind of struggle, as though they just didn’t want to come back until they were truly inspired. Click on ‘more’ to continue!

The rewards of a great comeback cannot be underestimated, especially in today’s event culture. Every concert and every album release has the force of an event. We live for the event – the cultural calendar is dominated by one-offs. It’s anti-social not to care the second time around, even if you’re struggling to remember any of the band’s songs from the first time. But paradoxically, the internet and the hunger for news makes it near impossible for any celebrity to disappear long enough to have a bona fide return. In a corner of the internet, all fads and fashions exist in perpetuity waiting to be mined. Look at the 1980s two-hit wonder Rick Astley (he had two hits, yes) – rickrolling is surely the least illustrious way to relaunch one’s career.

The huge emphasis on touring and the willingness of fans to shell out big bucks to support their favourite artists means that most bands have made ‘comebacks’ in recent years. Alternative festival All Tomorrows Parties made coming back something even the coolest artists did, albeit with the excuse of playing their biggest albums for new and old fans. The Pixies and My Bloody Valentine came back and played with a new-found authority, rediscovering bigger and more enthused audiences. Maybe we shouldn’t mock bands for finally getting the payback of uncritical adulation from years of (often) poorly-paid graft.

The assisted comeback also fits into this category. This is when a fairly famous and established artist or band is propelled into the spotlight again by whoever happens to be flavour of the month. For example, British singer Paul Weller’s early success with The Jam had already put him in the pantheon of late punk. However, almost twenty years later, it was the mutual celebration from monobrowed siblings Noel Gallagher and Liam Gallagher which made him appear credible and important. Similarly years before, Nirvana made Neil Young essential to a new generation of music fans (below).

However, most comebacks have similar aspects despite varying in potential, and manner of arrival. A dive in quality control, followed by a few years in the wilderness and then – ideally – a critically praised hit. Musicians, like most other artists, tend to create stuff all the time, churning it out in one guise or another. So why are we so in love with the idea of the all-renewing, all invigorating comeback? It’s because comebacks are all about second chances. The comeback is like an epic version of a reality show contestant looking for a second chance. We look for the cracks in the veneer, the lines of old age, and the deliverance of wisdom they didn’t have the first time around.

This raises another question for musicians. Do you stick to the old formula or do you try out something new? Comeback has a roulette factor – no-one knows what will stick. Kylie Minogue’s return saw her experimenting with Eurodisco, somehow transferring the addictive element of her pop music to more sophisticated hooky beats. Timberlake’s album can only be bought in its entirety from iTunes. How’s that for an artistic gesture worthy of Radiohead? David Bowie, on the other hand, has gone back to his 1970s melodies, minus the outfits. The story behind his first release in ten years is crucial to the album’s reception.

The Next Day has variously been hailed as the comeback album of the century by various publications, and lavished with warm praise by others. The album was developed secretly with producer Tony Visconti in a studio over two years, with the announcement of its release timed with the singer’s 66th birthday. But it looked briefly like Bowie had all but retired ten years ago with his album Reality. The final song hinted that the days of his being the ‘disco king’ were over: “Close me in the dark/let me disappear/Soon there’ll be nothing left of me/Nothing left to release.” The perfectly and near-superstitiously timed rapprochement was almost guaranteed to be received with excitement. Bowie could have released a concept album of him eating his cereal and it would be hovering around the top of the charts.

It goes without saying that the more successful and adored the artist, the greater expectation falls on an album. And like teenagers with an unrequited love habit, we’re used to coming back for more and being disappointed. The history of music is marked by unsuccessful comebacks. High-profile failures have included Michael Jackson’s ‘Invincible’, with its comically wrong title (below). It was nowhere near invincible. Less optimistically, Prince bribed fans to buy his new album by including a free ticket to an accompanying live show. Unlike banks, these pop stars weren’t too big to fail.

But the stakes have inevitably gone up in the age of technological wizardry and Google Glasses. Whereas before you could simply hope to get attention by being the biggest person currently alive, now you’re competing against legions of dead holographic people, who have the bonus of being dead and magical. If I had to make a choice between seeing a holographic Elvis and a live and cranky Bob Dylan, I know which one I’d go for. Alternatively, more artists could try to engineer the pretend-comeback, as though they hadn’t privately been plugging away at their music for years. Think Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’. The pretend- comeback is also a good way of annoying fewer people when you’re playing the long game. Think Madonna and her entire prolific career, which even the most ardent Madonna fan struggles to retain a polite interest in, like an exhausted relative babysitting an energetic toddler (below).

And if Timberlake’s comeback makes you feel like life is passing you by? It might be worth remembering that the burn rate of pop music fads never slows down. Elvis was only a year older at 33 when he made his comeback with the bravely titled 68 Comeback Special …

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