Age, the late singer Aaliyah once noted, ain't nothin' but a number.
In the music business, though, the bigger that number, the smaller a record company's interest tends to be in an artist's career. The industry's conventional wisdom goes like this: It's a young person's industry because young people buy most of the product.
But good music has a way of shaking such so-called wisdom and of challenging perceptions that restrict artists and their work. As the classy R&B singer Regina Belle said recently, "Don't count me out because I'm not 18 and a size 2."
Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson and Tony Bennett have been shaking those perceptions and holding their artistic reputations for some time. Dylan, 60, has earned renewed critical acclaim for his latest, Love and Theft. The dynamic Turner, 61, recently retired from performing but will continue to record. The prolific Nelson, 68, continues to stretch musically. The venerable Bennett, 75, has an album due out next month.
New recordings by George Jones, 70, and Leonard Cohen, 67, offer even more proof that age and experience can indeed be more potent
than youth and skill.
Both men have returned to the record wars with their best albums in years. One listen to the aptly-titled The Rock: Stone Cold Country in 2001 by Jones (Bandit/BNA) and the arresting Ten New Songs by Cohen (Columbia) underscores the alternate reality: Age can bring songs of wisdom, depth and emotional possibilities unimaginable in youth.
On The Rock, the man considered by many to be the greatest living country singer delivers a classic, one of the best in his five-decades-long career. Jones has charted more than 160 records; his first No. 1 was 1959's "White Lightning." Other hits include "She Thinks I Still Care," "Walk Through This World With Me" and what is arguably his best, 1980's "He
Stopped Loving Her Today." A string of hit duets with his
late ex-wife Tammy Wynette ("Golden Ring," "The Grand Tour") also are deeply loved.
While Jones' voice shows some expected deterioration, his vocal tone and lower register are still stirring and cogent. This is the best he has sounded since "He Stopped Lovin' Her Today." (Jones has quit smoking, and it shows in the tone quality of his vocals.)
There's an unmistakable dose of tabloid-style realism associated with Jones' music. He has lived a life on the edge, with his highly publicized bouts with the bottle and his tumultuous marriage to Wynette. No wonder Jones' voice and his songs have that lived-in, been-through-it-all feeling. But along with the sometimes chaotic life, he has created a breathtaking body of work.
When the songs are right, Jones' magnificent instrument makes exquisite music loaded with real feelings, touching every emotional nuance. The Rock, for the most part, gives Jones prime opportunities to express himself. At a time when country is adrift creatively and its share of music market is shrinking, Jones brings country fans a striking, down-home lesson in what real country music is all about.
What's to like? Just about every track, particularly the soulful and raw "Half Over You." The superb lyric (by Karen Staley) exposes wrenching hurt and regret in a haunting, confessional delivery that tears at the heart. Almost as thrilling is Jones' take on "50,000 Names," Jamie O'Hara's heartfelt and poignant tribute to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "Beer Run," a duet with Garth Brooks, is a playful update
of "White Lightning." The album's title song, about love gone wrong, also shines.
The album's high point comes at the end -- Jones' rich, soul-deep take on Billy Joe Shaver's "Tramp on Your Street." The song's power is underscored by a striking arrangement that starts full and fades to steel and acoustic guitars enveloping Jones' voice. The scars of life's battles are readily apparent, but Jones stands triumphantly above it all. The Rock is everything a serious fan of real country music could want.
THE BARD FROM CANADA
Classic songs such as "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Sisters of Mercy" established Cohen as one of the rock era's most respected songwriters. Over the course of a 30-plus year career,
14 albums, nine poetry collections and a couple of novels, he has
exerted an influence that goes well beyond his modest album sales.
That multigenerational appeal expressed itself in tribute recordings -- Jennifer Warnes' sleek 1986 Famous Blue Raincoat, 1991's alt-rock packed I'm Your Fan and 1995's Tower of Song.
The Canada-born Cohen is a most literate songwriter and poet, an eloquent explorer of the endless complexities of the heart. His penetrating songs -- often melancholy journeys into the psyche -- are delivered in tones laden with the gravity of living. His voice can convey wry amusement as easily as he communicates the hunger; sometimes choosing to combat love's failure with a humor seasoned with a stinging bitterness or sarcasm that exposes the raw pain.
Cohen is the other man in black.
Some think Cohen's work dour, depressing, morose. But in its darkness it also is very human, very real. And like all good poetry, his lyrics have several layers of possibilities. Above all there is a sense of profound longing, often etched in beautiful words imbued with an exquisite sadness. He was, and is, the master of the unrequited.
After a tour for the 1992 album, The Future, Cohen dropped out of music and spent five years in a Zen monastery outside Los Angeles. There he meditated six hours a day and cooked for the monastery's Roshi. But it wasn't all koans for Cohen. He kept writing, using a laptop computer. Outside the Zen center, a semblance of a musical profile was maintained. Columbia Records released More Best of Leonard Cohen in 1997 and
two live albums, 1994's Cohen Live and this year's
Field Commander Cohen -- Tour of 1979.
Cohen assembled Ten New Songs after ending his extended retreat. It is a re-entry into a world he calls "Boogie Street" (there are several references to it and a song with that name). This is an album of astounding beauty. The songs, like those of the past, are multilayered, but a thread of compassion -- for self and others -- and the search for clarity inhabit the often masterful poetry. The album's not-unexpected meditative aura is supported by generally sparse music and Cohen's hushed delivery that allows a warm, intimate sensuality to emerge in his voice.
This recording, Cohen's first collaboration, is created with longtime associate Sharon Robinson, who co-wrote the tunes, plays synthesizers, sings backup and produced the album.
And what songs they are. Especially memorable are "In My Secret Life," imbued with a soul-deep and unrequited romantic longing and a stark inner assessment of conscience. The magnificent and stately "Alexandra Leaving" arouses a sweet, sad space as Cohen explores a romance that could be real or fantasy. The deceptively languid "A Thousand Kisses Deep" seeps under your skin before you know it. Cohen's delivery is open and alluringly personal, embracing broader emotional textures and detached from the bite that used to come so easily. Because of this vocal and musical openness, the listener can approach the songs with more interpretive possibilities. The songs more easily become the listener's, to be experienced on whatever level he chooses. This especially benefits the ominous "By the River Dark," the thoughtful metaphors that illuminate "Love Itself" and the social commentary and hope that characterize "The Land of Plenty."
On past albums, Cohen sought an answer or a resolution, and would often immerse himself in the pain. Now this moving, expressive croak of a voice lets the longing and the hurt be. He doesn't have -- or want -- answers. It's enough to just be in the moment, in the experience, without that immersion and moving on to the next moment. Perhaps that's the result of years of meditation. Maybe it's the wisdom that can come with age.
Maybe ... maybe not. After all, age ain't nothin' but a number.