Musicians with careers numbering in multiple decades face an eternal struggle: How do they not only keep themselves engaged and relevant, but also make sure the audience hangs with them for the journey, wherever it may lead?
Some handle the transition from raw upstart to polished veteran better than others, although there are bands that can extend themselves well past the point of entertainment. Sometimes, it’s better to leave the party early than stay too late.
This week, four acts, nearly all of whom have at least 10 years in the music biz under their belts, released new records. Here are some quick thoughts on how well — or not — they handle the tricky task of keeping things interesting for all involved.
Pearl Jam, ‘Lightning Bolt’
“I’ve found my place and it’s all right,” sings Eddie Vedder on Getaway, the opening track on Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album. For the famously restive rock band, cruising into its third decade, it’s as firm a statement of acceptance as any.
Lightning Bolt is rich with echoes of earlier, angrier work — the lyrics, in particular, trend more hostile and introspective than on the last few records. “What a pity you left us so soon to climb your mountain of regret,” Vedder spits at an absentee dad on My Father’s Son. But the band also displays a calm, sure hand with ballads that would’ve sounded downright worrying a decade ago ( Sirens is beautiful, traced back to antecedents like Wishlist). Working with de facto producer Brendan O’Brien, Pearl Jam sounds recharged and ready for whatever comes next — which includes a tour (the band will make its first appearance in Dallas in a decade Nov. 15 at American Airlines Center).
Willie Nelson, ‘To All the Girls …’
At this stage of his life and illustrious career, Willie can do whatever he damn well pleases. Maintaining his steady pace of a new album a year (and often, more than that; Girls is his second offering of 2013), Nelson calls on a bevy of famous women for this expansive duets collection. Familiar and fresh faces intermingle throughout — from Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and Wynonna Judd to the Secret Sisters, Brandi Carlile and Miranda Lambert — and Nelson meshes well with each collaborator, showing his formidable appreciation for jazz and its necessity for improvisation.
There’s an elegiac undertow to most of the material here — Nashville has always had a weakness for torchy ballads — and the record runs a little long at 65 minutes, but in this case, it’s just an embarrassment of riches, along with being Nelson’s strongest showing since 2008’s Moment of Forever.
Paul McCartney, ‘New’
More than any of his contemporaries from the ’60s, Paul McCartney has demonstrated a remarkable willingness to dive into the deep end of modern music. Not content to simply spend his days reclined upon the gargantuan pile of money amassed during his time in the Beatles or tour three-hour sets of his hits (although he surely finds time to do both), McCartney is reaching out to the next generation for collaborators, which often yields surprising results.
At the very least, his work on New (McCartney’s first album of original solo material in six years), which found him teamed with Paul Epworth, Giles Martin, Mark Ronson and Ethan Johns, suggests he’ll keep cranking out fresh songs until he keels over. It’s a compact piece of work at 45 minutes, and the highlights are plentiful: Alligator and On My Way to Work, in particular, are sparkling pop gems.
The Avett Brothers, ‘Magpie and the Dandelion’
For the past decade-plus, Scott and Seth Avett have built a cult following (Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki is perhaps DFW’s most visible fan; he has joined the band onstage before) and critical goodwill for carefully crafted folk rock with dark undercurrents. Aligning with producer Rick Rubin has helped push the North Carolina collective further into the mainstream, and clearly the union is a productive one: Magpie and the Dandelion arrives just over a year after The Carpenter, and these songs, tinged with what the Avetts describe as “youthful wonder,” are a pleasing counterpoint to The Carpenter’s often dour mood.
Although Dandelion tips in the other direction — halfway through, I wondered what the harm would be in blending the light and dark into one record — the Avetts, on soaring cuts like Morning Song or Another Is Waiting, sound positively exuberant.