Trends move at lightning speed, careers flicker and die within milliseconds. It’s rare to watch someone evolve artistically in public anymore; artists are expected to arrive fully formed, and crank out slight variations on whatever original notion captivated the public the first time around. That growth stuff is messy. It can lead to some uncomfortable experiments. Better to stick to the hits.
The notion of an artist “stretching” beyond the money shot seems so last century, right alongside the equally quaint notion of “the album.” I’d argue, though, that it’s timeless: A degree of restlessness is vital to the health of any artform, both for the continuing development of artists and their audiences. It’s one thing to celebrate the long-odds survival of a band like the Rolling Stones – and quite another to marvel at Bob Dylan for writing a song like “Narrow Way” or “Long and Wasted Years” from his new Tempest. Somewhere in the last decade or so, a period of steady touring activity, Dylan connected the sounds of his beloved American music of long ago (blues, frontier ballads, corny patriotic songs, vaudeville) to the shrewd observations and castigations that made him famous in the 1960s. He changed his game, reinvented his discipline. You listen to him now, and beyond the croak, what’s most significant is an undeniable energy. He’s in this. He’s electrified by these sounds. His new material certainly reflects the verse/chorus discipline he’s had from the very beginning, but the framework is new. There’s (lusty, messy, rumpled) life running through the tunes. You get the sense that this is all that matters.
That’s one reason Dylan reminds me of people like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Ellington wrote constantly – nowadays we focus on the blithe carefree tunes that became hits in the 1930s, but his songbook has many dimensions. Some pieces from the late ‘50s and ‘60s are just stunning – as winningly melodic as the earlier successes, yet informed by Ellington’s experiences traveling the world, and, crucially, the time he spent playing with “modern” jazz names like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. Ellington didn’t sit still: When he felt like he’d exhausted the possibilities of the standard pop tune, he expanded into longer forms and more elusive, unusual themes (notably, the Sacred Concerts). Even after decades of slogging on the road, he remained in the hunt for new timbres and sound combinations. He kept going. And along the way squeezed astonishingly fresh thrills out of what might have been an albatross, the instrumentation of a conventional big band.
Then there’s Miles Davis. Books have been written about the stylistic changes he engineered that sent shockwaves through jazz – as a very young man, he fled bebop in order to create the lush, plangent sounds of cool jazz. When he got bored with that, he tore up that playbook and developed something else. Though often described as “bold” and “mercurial, Davis is perhaps better understood as an expert sponge – someone who soaked up what was happening in the culture, and then used the relevant vocabulary to create something completely original. Sounds that illuminated a way forward. And he did it over and over again – in the 1980s, when lots of jazz players rushed to embrace hiphop, Davis was one of the very few to arrive at a sound that conveyed nuance and meaning.
When we talk about artistry in music, the conversation is usually about a great hook or a concept, or technique, or maybe the “vision thing.” The willingness to grow and change doesn’t often enter the discussion, perhaps because it doesn’t align with success measurements like sales figures. There are no awards for restlessness, no merit prizes for those who keep chasing after an idea and work at it long enough to shift the thinking. In fact, that kind of restlessness is too risky, a profound threat to the calcified status quo. Which is exactly why we need it.