Musicians in the twilight of their careers usually return to what they know.
The Rolling Stones are about to release their first album in 11 years, “Blue & Lonesome,” a collection of classic blues covers. For the Stones, who began as a blues cover band, this is the equivalent of a Great American Songbook tribute album.
For them, as for many legacy acts, these retro roots offerings — reworked versions of songs they came to know as adults, or cut their teeth on as children — have become the musical equivalent of safe spaces. They’re ideal parking places for artists who haven’t released an album in a long time but want to remain relevant, or who want a hit but are no longer sure about their ability to write one.
Back-to-their-roots cover albums have been around almost as long as rock-and-roll itself. Some of them are great. Some of them are cash grabs. Some of them are cash grabs that are also kind of great. The ’70s offered up a handful of classics: David Bowie’s “Pin Ups” (rock covers, mostly British), Harry Nilsson’s “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night” (standards) and Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” (also standards, sleekly done). In the ’80s, Linda Ronstadt released big-band albums arranged by Nelson Riddle that would remake her career in same way the “American Recordings” series would reinvent Johnny Cash’s in the ’90s.
In the 2000s, Rod Stewart released five standards albums in eight years. They sold millions of copies and inspired countless imitators, although their increasing awfulness eventually hastened the demise of the genre. These days, back-to-their-roots albums aren’t the sure things they once were. Consumers are slower to equate these retro offerings with authenticity, and baby boomers, their target audience, generally can’t be relied upon to buy albums like they used to.
“I don’t think there’s much cash to be grabbed,” says Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. “I just don’t think the money’s there. Fifteen years ago, when Rod Stewart was doing these standards albums, they were on CD and you could go to the store and buy them. He’d sell 5 million of them, and you could make that case. But people just got tired of hearing them. They ran that string out as long as it could run.”
Some highlights and lowlights of the post-Rod era, in chronological order:
Rod Stewart, “The Great American Songbook, Volumes 1-5” (2002-2010)
Most artists who release retro standards albums have a genuine feel for the material, or at least a willingness to fake it. But Stewart’s albums are notable for their complete lack of enthusiasm and imagination, and their willingness to strip pop music’s most venerable songs for parts. Even the usually reticent Bob Dylan put him on blast: “I’m not going to knock anybody’s right to make a living,” he told AARP magazine last year, “but you can always tell if somebody’s heart and soul is into something, and I didn’t think Rod was into it in that way.”
Aerosmith, “Honkin’ on Bobo” (2004)
When done right, back-to-their-roots cover albums will remind audiences of what artists used to do well, before they lost their way. This raw-nerved and brutish collection of Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon blues-rock covers sounded like vintage Aerosmith, before they ran into trouble with too many drugs, or Diane Warren songs.
Peter Gabriel, “Scratch My Back” (2010)
Most cover albums from legacy acts present the artist in a newly tasteful guise, singing carefully curated songs they may be only pretending to have loved since childhood. It’s unusual to find one that offers a window into contemporary songs an artist genuinely loves and values. Gabriel’s collection of covers felt like his personal playlist, with an emphasis on Starbucks-friendly indie rock acts such as the Magnetic Fields and Bon Iver, their delicate compositions often beefed up with swelling orchestral arrangements. It’s the rare cover album that is a work of art in its own right. “And I’ll Scratch Yours,” featuring the artists Gabriel had covered, covering him, was released in 2013.
Paul McCartney: “Kisses on the Bottom” (2012)
Roots-minded cover albums are meant to do for artists what they can no longer do for themselves, such as write catchy, marketable songs, or reliably sell albums. The then-newly married McCartney’s almost-all-covers collection of iconic songs from Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin evokes the songs he used to write. It’s as jolly as the jolliest Merseybeat song, as sentimental as a Wings album.
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: “Cheek to Cheek” (2014)
Gaga waited out her post-“Artpop” early-career meltdown with this authenticity-conferring duets collection. Stylistically, Gaga and Bennett didn’t always gel — he was gallant and reserved, she went full musical theater kid. But it’s a timely reminder that the Great American Songbook isn’t the sole territory of legacy acts; it’s also useful for younger artists who just want to sound old.
A matched set of standards albums, in which Dylan reinterpreted songs sung by Frank Sinatra. Dylan seems to genuinely like these songs, as much as Dylan ever seems to like anything, and his rusted-out voice suits them better than it has a right to. These albums are poignant and enigmatic and weird, their motivating force remaining a mystery.
Ryan Adams: “1989” (2015)
Adams’s somber, affectionate take on Taylor Swift’s giddy electro-pop behemoth, rooted in his familiar acoustic-based rock, is one of the few cover albums in history to confer an equal amount of legitimacy upon both singer and subject. For Swift, it demonstrated that even though she was now a pop star, her compositions were still substantial enough to be taken seriously by one of Americana’s greatest songwriters. And it endeared Adams to an entire generation of Swift fans, who probably briefly followed him on Instagram.