Midlife Masterpieces

Lou Reed, Public Enemy, Bonnie Raitt and others prove how pop excellence can thrive between youth and twilight.

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Lou Reed soundchecks in Italy in 1982. Credit: Luciano Viti/Getty Images.

If you made a list of the most acclaimed albums of all time and plotted them on a chart where the X axis is the age of the artists, you’d get an inverted bell curve. Conventional wisdom says great music is made primarily by bold, upstart young tyros at the start of their careers, and by reenergized senior citizens gazing toward the twilight.

The young sell surprise and immaturity; the old sell wisdom and prestige. What do middle-aged musicians sell? There isn’t a big demand for not-quite-surprise and not-exactly-wisdom.

When Jerry Lee Lewis released the ballad “Middle Age Crazy” in 1977, he was in his early 40s, and the song, about a panicked guy in midlife who overcompensates by driving a Porsche and dating a girl who’s about half his age, built on a history of country songs that deal with middle age — from Nat Stuckey, who in 1969 sang, “It takes me all night long to do what I used to do all night long,” to, more recently, Brad Paisley’s “Letter to Me.”

Many of the first generation of rockers died young, so it wasn’t until the 1970s that middle-aged stars even existed. Jimmy Buffett’s regretful “A Pirate Looks at 40,” released in 1974, was a first step. By the next decade, the theme became more common: Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” and Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square” poke fun at their narrators, and Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland is more or less a concept album about middle age.

By now, you can fill a playlist with songs about middle age. They come in all emotional colors: They can be lecherous and pathetic (Jarvis Cocker’s “Leftovers”), annoyed (“Charge, by Elbow), confident (Brandi Carlile’s “The Story”), hard-boiled (Snoop Dogg’s “Can’t Say Goodbye”) or hilariously demented (the Dead Milkmen’s “The Sun Turns Our Patio Into a Lifeless Hell”).

Turns out, the middle ground of middle age has been fertile soil for some musicians. Here are a few artists who, in the middle of their careers, made the right adjustments, found a new style or theme and didn’t settle for hit-parade reunion tours.

Lou Reed
The Blue Mask (1982)

Lou Reed was a week away from turning 40 when he released The Blue Mask in 1982. What hadn’t he seen? His disapproving parents sent him for electroshock therapy “to discourage [my] homosexual feelings,” he said. He left Long Island for Manhattan, shared a $30-a-month dump on the Lower East Side with friends and bandmates and ate oatmeal three times a day. Reed was a songwriter, and he wanted music to have less flowers and San Francisco and more reality, like a Hubert Selby Jr. novel. In the Velvet Underground, beginning with their 1967 debut, he wrote about heroin and sadomasochism and devised a squalid, distorted form of rock that hadn’t previously existed and will last forever. There was nothing in decadent Downtown New York that Reed hadn’t ingested or participated in.

Reed released much of his best-loved solo work in the 1970s, for him a period of mythic debauchery. Once he straightened out his life — marriage, sobriety, tai chi — he continued to hit creative peaks throughout the 1980s and ’90s. On The Blue Mask, he mourns a dead friend and John Kennedy, renounces sexism and booze, frets hilariously about taxes and his health like every middle-aged schlub, and sounds as surprised as the rest of us when he crows about his “lucky life.” And on “Waves of Fear” and the title track, he and Robert Quine demonstrate how an electric guitar can describe panic and paranoia as much as words can.

Bonnie Raitt
Nick of Time (1989)

When Bonnie Raitt debuted in 1971, at the dawn of the singer-songwriter era, she drew a lot of attention: She was a flame-haired white girl who sang a mix of blues, rock and folk, and was savvy enough to cover great but obscure Black artists including Sippie Wallace. Raitt had plenty of prestige and acclaim but no hits, and eventually Warner Bros. tried to make her more commercial. It didn’t work, and in the mid-’80s the label dropped her, a dozen years into her career. Also battling substance-abuse issues, she lapsed into what she later called “a complete emotional, physical and spiritual breakdown.”

The producer Don Was gravitates toward prestige and acclaim and sees ways to make them more commercial. Raitt was 39 and sober when she released Nick of Time, her first album on a new label. She contributed the title track, about the difficult choices women often face in middle age, and covered “Too Soon to Tell,” cowritten by former NFL all-star Mike Reid (also the cowriter of Raitt’s later smash “I Can’t Make You Love Me”). The album topped the Billboard 200, went multi-Platinum and earned three Grammys, including Album of the Year. The night of the awards, Raitt has said, was “as close as you can get to Cinderella.”

John Lennon/Yoko Ono
Double Fantasy (1980)

In October 1975, John Lennon released Shaved Fish, a compilation album that looked back at the music he’d made since the Beatles broke up, which satisfied his recording contract, making him a free agent. The same month, his wife and music partner Yoko Ono gave birth to their son, Sean.

Lennon was a late adapter to feminism (see “Getting Better” by the Beatles), but he came to love being a househusband. He tended to Sean, taught him to swim and baked bread at home while Ono managed their business matters. Rock had lost one of its greatest singers and songwriters.

A few years later, Lennon heard the B-52’s’ “Rock Lobster” and realized the world was ready for the outrageous, emotive music he and Ono had made, which had been widely derided. Lennon and Ono returned to music with Double Fantasy, an album full of eroticism (“Kiss Kiss Kiss”), contentment (“Cleanup Time”) and familial bliss (“Beautiful Boy [Darling Boy]”). The album came out two weeks after Lennon turned 40. Three weeks later, he was murdered outside the Dakota apartment building in New York.

Amy Rigby
Til the Wheels Fall Off (2003)

Once upon a time, an observant, artsy girl from Pittsburgh followed her romantic wanderlust to New York, where she discovered a magnificently seedy city and a bohemian spirit that prompted her to form a couple of low-key bands. She had a daughter, whom she schlepped across the country in decrepit minivans, and made her first solo album at the age of 37.

Now a woman, Amy Rigby invented a genre rock ’n’ roll hadn’t realized it needed: honest and humorous songs about a marginalized working mom who’s under constant financial stress. Til the Wheels Fall Off, from 2003, is full of tart folk-rock songs enlivened by Rigby’s vulnerable voice, and lyrics about falling asleep before 10 and longing for the simplicity of being young. It also includes one of the best songs ever written about marriage. It’s called “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?” and the answer seems to be no, we’re not.

Willie Nelson
Red Headed Stranger (1975)

According to the editors of Texas Monthly, Willie Nelson has released a staggeringly prolific 143 studio and live albums in his career. But that number is from April 2020, and given the rate at which Nelson works, there could well be a dozen more by now. Remarkably, each one has something to recommend it.

In the mid-1970s, Nelson was at a crossroads in his early 40s. As a songwriter, he’d penned time-tested hits like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, but as a solo artist, his own records hadn’t caught on. Nelson’s languid voice and eccentric, behind-the-beat phrasing just didn’t fit on country radio. He hit his stride late by making the smart decision of not trying to fit in. Many Willieheads champion Phases and Stages, a 1974 album about the end of a marriage, but Red Headed Stranger, released the next year, has more drama. It tells the story of a lovelorn preacher in the Old West who kills his unfaithful wife and her love.

The record company hated the unvarnished production and arrangements, but the public knew better: Nelson’s cover of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was a No. 1 country hit, and gave him the momentum to keep moving forward.

Public Enemy
How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (2007)

With a few exceptions, rap stars burn out faster than rock or pop stars. The music prizes youth and innovation, which creates rapid turnover. In the late 1980s, Public Enemy tore through pop culture with Chuck D’s rapid-fire observations about privilege and exploitation in America and Flavor Flav’s comic exhortations. After a decade of dopeness, their time at Def Jam, one of rap’s preeminent labels, hit a quarter-century-long pause. Juvenile, OutKast and DMX ruled the rap charts.

They kept on, recording for various smaller labels, and in 2007, with Chuck and Flav both closer to 50 than to 40, they brought the noise once again. On How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???, they call themselves “ol’ heads” as well as “Rolling Stones of the rap game,” and use James Brown samples and hard-rock guitars to match the power of Chuck’s rousing denunciations of George W. Bush, colonialism, the police, Hollywood, rappers who care only about success, religious hypocrisy and ignorance of all colors. If you want to learn how to grow old in hip-hop, Uncle Chuck will show you: “Don’t wear throwbacks ’cause I’m a throwback.”

Robyn
Honey (2018)

The Swedish singer Robyn was 16 when she debuted in 1995 with an album of club music that had tantalizing amounts of soul and emotional maturity. It was difficult to gauge how good she was, because she recorded with a clique of Nordic producers who were also sculpting hits for Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. Over time, she got more daring and personal, invented a sharp-edged electronic style that was largely about heartache, wrote songs about female empowerment, launched her own record label and became a beloved artist. Then she more or less disappeared out of the limelight for most of her 30s.

When she returned in 2018 with Honey, she was 39 and had the same thoughtful, contained voice she’d had at 16. In the intervening years she’d conceived a new sound, electronic and European but gentler, like a dance club with a plush floor. “Down in the deep, the honey is sweeter,” she promises.

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