Some artists acheive oblivion; others have obscurity thrust upon them.
There are musicians who have vanished on purpose. Clapton managed it by developing a heroin habit, Dylan wound himself around a motorcycle, Lennon took up baking . . . but these are extreme methods.
But imposed obscurity has round heels. One hit and a Year's silence, and it's into the bargain bin. Getting out means hitting a new vein in talent that may already have been mined out, resulting in the undistinguished, if not embarrassing mass of "comeback" albums. Among the winter crop are three such return engagements -- one thumbs up, one thumbs down and the third at a flat horizontal.
Rick Nelson's latest release, "Playing To Win" (Captiol SOO-12109) is a spare, unencumbered step back to his rockabilly roots -- produced, incidentally, by the semi-long-lost Jack Nitzsche. Having dissolved his Stone Canyon Band, Nelson has retreated from California rock to an understated country rock 'n' roll reminiscent of Credence Clearwater Revival.
Although an aura of soppy sentimentality seems to have attached itself in retrospect to his early recordings, Nelson was L.A.'s first prophet of rockabilly and country rock. Even now, he eschews the overdubbed "studio sound" for very plain electric guitar and background vocals from the other performers rather than professional harmonizers.
There is a pleasantly jarring range of writers represented here, including Credence wunderkind John Fogarty, whose "Almost Saturday Night" is given a relaxed, affectionate reading. "Believe What You Say" by Johnny and Dorsey Burnette (Nelson's relationship with the Burnette brothers is of long standing) is sheer late-'50s we're-going-steady-little-doll roll. There is an echo of Nelson's Stone Canyon period in Ry Cooder's "Do the Best That You Can" (recorded by Ronstadt as "The Tattler" for no obvious lyrical reason). And if you didn't know "Back to Schooldays" was a Graham Parker number, you'd never believe it.
The two best tracks are Nelson's own "The Loser Babe Is You," a blues-flavored, good-humored kiss-off that gives the album its title (It's a loser's game, playing to win"); and a perfectly insinuated interpretation of John Hiatt's "It Hasn't Happened Yet," which, if God had given disc jockeys ears, would be this month's gold-plated breakout.
Considering the power of nostalgia, the breakout bullet will probably go to Steve Winwood, whose widely heralded return to the studio after three years' silence had produced the barely passable "Arc of a Diver" (Island ILPS 9576), a grade-B album that serves mostly to remind us that Winwood used to make grade-A music.
One of the big publicity hooks for "Arc" is that it was produced, engineered, mixed, composed and entirely performed by Winwood. Well, whoopdedoo. Todd Rundgren's one-man project, "Something/Anything," was released a decade ago, and it's still better. Winwood's heavy preference for keyboards over other instruments and his distinctive wailing-blues vocals work against him over the course of this albun, becoming monotonous and ultimately irritating. Winwood, whose writing with Traffic and Blind Faith marked a high point in rock composition, has forgotten how to throw the change-up: Not only are the melodies similar, but within each number there is too little variation.
Winwood says the hardest thing about getting back into recording was finding a collaborator. There are three lyricists credited on "Arc of a Diver": Will Jennings is the best of a bad lot.
Don McLean has a similar problem on "Chain Lightning" (Millennium BXL1-7756), but in reverse; his own writing is the low point.
This is a gimmick album, in which McLean intersperses his compositions with classics intended to demonstrate that he is an underrated vocalist (see liner notes). There are at least a couple of tracks that bear that out: Roy Orbison's "Crying (Over You)" and Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." Hank Williams' "Your Cheating Heart" is unnecessarily turgid. Meanwhile, the two major McLean operas, "Genesis (in the Beginning)" and the title track, are intolerably long and excruciatingly pompous.
McLean appears to be making a pitch for the conventional country audience with this solemn, smug album. Produced by Larry Butler and recorded in Nashville, it features such backup talent as Hargus "Pig Robbins, Pete Drake and the Jordanaires Unfortunately, they're wasted.