Sparks Beyond The Peak: 5 Late Career Albums That Deserve A Second Look
Sentimentality can be blinding. But, sometimes, also enlighting.
I have a strangely consistent habit of finding many of my favourite musicians during the time, when they were returning from some kind of a hiatus or simply producing a late career album, which generally isn’t considered among their best work. It’s always the same old story. I start exploring a band or an artist, who has been around a while, eat up all their discography and become a fan. Then they release new music that doesn't quite hit the highs of the past, but I still end up having a blast with it, since I’m basically just happy that they’re still releasing new stuff. That, in turn, means that I often find myself loving albums that aren't exactly considered classics in the said artist's or band's career.
And, well, after the latest addition into this oddly specific collection in form of last year’s Viva Las Vengance by Panic! at the Disco, I figured I’d explore 5 albums from iconic bands/artists that, in my opinion, are either rather brilliant, or simply benefit a lot, when detaching them from the weight of said band's or artist’s legacy.
Viva Las Vengeance by Panic! at the Disco (2022): Middle of a Breakup
Kicking things off with a vengeance, or rather, with an album that best encapsulates what this list is about—Panic’s comeback turned swansong album Viva Las Vengeance. Here's a record that never really had a shot in the first place and one that, on closer listen, seems to be painfully aware of it.
Now, it’s not like a late career album from a versatile legacy band like Panic ever needed to be a hit commercially. Just deliver something fresh for the fans to enjoy and you’re good. Take a bold new direction, go nuts, go heavy metal (as many fans hoped). Panic is a genre on it’s own, screw it, sky’s the limit! Or, if it indeed felt like the time to say goodbye, do it properly with a record that puts farewell confidently in its centre. Yet, upon first listening, it felt like its vibe was best described with „Maybe it’s the end of the road, I dunno.“
Indeed, just looking at its initial release and promotion, there seemed to be this lack of excitement and even exhaustion from many fans. So, when Panic finally called it quits less than half a year later, it was easy to disregard Viva Las Vengeance as a long time overdue end for a project, which had spent a big part of it’s existence in this pretty odd creative limbo between a former band and lead singer Brendon Urie’s solo project.
However, make no mistake, this album is not the work of somebody, who is creatively bankrupt or falling out of love with music. It is, however, a work of somebody, who wants to keep going but doesn’t know how to anymore. An album about an end of a love story between an artist and a band. About the point, where Urie's personal journey just didn't line up with something that once started out as a more collaborative creative effort.
And well, when looking at the first three and final three songs on the album, it actually tells this story rather brilliantly. It starts with the defiance to keep going despite the feeling that the road is coming to an end (Viva Las Vengeance, Middle of a Breakup, Don't Let The Light Go Out) and ends with a sense of resignation that maybe this road really has run it’s course (Sad Clown, All by Yourself, Do it to Death). It's clever storytelling backed up by a few great songs and music videos.
As for the slightly aimless middle part of the album, it’s pretty much just Brendon and Panic! trying different things to still make it work. Simply put, while the songs in this part feel a bit out of creative energy compared to what Panic is know for, they are muscially very well made, catchy and clearly a work of a seasoned veteran just tinkering away.
In fact, the entire album is, in my opinion, quite strong from a musical perspective. It is as wondefully genre fluid as Panic has ever been, while also charting a bit of new territory for the band with its classic rock inspired vibe. In fact, songs like Viva Las Vengenace, Do it to Death, Don't Let The Light Go Out, Sad Clown (at least ironically) and Sugar Soaker will probably stand the test of time as interesting additions into Panic's extremely varied discography. The album also has a nice pace to it and, for what it’s worth, is far from a shy or a quiet final note for the band.
As for Urie himself, he does seem to go down the same road many acomplished artist’s go later in their career of doing stuff that is technically impressive, but lacking the substance of their older output. However, when you feel that you’ve said it all and done it all, why not explore how far you can push yourself technically?
All in all, I really feel that it is one of the those albums, that once the dust has settled, will start gaining more appreciation. Just hear it for it for what it is—a little ode to burnout. Panic! needed to stop. Urie needed a break. But if this record is anything to go by, it leaves us with the bands’s varied legacy very much intact and a sense that we haven't seen the last of its lead singer (or any of the other talented members that went through this colorful revolving door over the years).
Love Sux by Avril Lavigne (2022): Avril Being Avril
Perhaps even more so than any other on this list, Avril Lavigne's later output seems to be followed by the shadow of her first couple of albums. And, well, it's not hard to see why. Let Go was one of those era defining lightings in a bottle, Under My Skin displayed her depth by taking everything into more mature territory and The Best Damn Thing stands as one of the most unapologetically fun pop rock albums ever made. Her next albums, however, while definietly not without their highpoints, have left many wanting for Avril from either of her first three albums.
However, one person who clearly isn't fazed by all that is, well, Avril herself. Simply put, one can aruge about the directions her music have taken since her early years, but one thing seems to have remained a constant in her discography—it has always been a work of someone simply doing what is most fun and inviting at whatever point in her life. And, well, Love Sux is a near triumphant example of that.
Simply put, it’s a fun pop punk retread full of contagious F U energy. And, well, that’s about it. That's all what it wants and needs to be. It’s song after song of Avril putting her challenging years behing and simply having a blast in studio. Having found great collaborators in form of Goldfinger's John Feldman and Blink's Travis Baker, it might feel a bit overproduced here and there, but generally delivers the energy that I hoped for but didn’t necessarily expect from Avril at this point in her career.
What really seals it as a great later era album for me, however, is the fact that while simply having a blast in studio, she’s also created a satisfying concept album about flushing a toxic ex out of one’s system. For anyone, who has either been in a toxic relationship or has seen a close person going through it, this album is cathartic as hell and says all the right words with more than enough bite one needs to put it behind. Songs like Bite Me, Love Sux and F.U. are literal anthems for it, while Dare to Love Me perfectly encapsulates the softer aspect of what a person feels, when having emerged from a toxic relationship.
Yes, a case can be made that Avril has potential for more as an artist in terms of depth. However, it’s hard to care, when the results are so damn fun and effective.
Relapse by Eminem (2009): A Twisted But Happy Accident
I remember being an excited teenager waiting for the new Eminem album back in 09. The return of the artist, whose list of people he had pissed off was only surpassed by the ones he had inspired. What would the first proper album in half a decade provide? A return of the blonde haired controversy machine from the early '00s or the emergence of a matured version of him?
Well, neither. Instead, what we got was an odd and uneven little horror core album. It wasn’t sharp in terms of message and it wasn’t mature in terms of reflection. Rather, it was a slightly awkward first step of a sobered up artist finding his feet again but still wobbling a bit.
Yet, over the years, this album seems to have gotten a bit of a cult following amongst the fandom. And, well, for a good reason. Simply put, Relapse is one happy—albeit slightly twisted—accident. Yes, the weird accents are there not becasue it was a smart artistic choice but because Em tried to find his freedom to bend words again. Same goes for the horror elements, which seem to be there simply because he wasn’t ready to reflect on his ongoing revocery yet and needed some framework for the album.
However, as unintentional as they are (or perhaps because of it), it works kind of amazingly as a horror core album. 3 a.m. sets the tone nicely, Insane then tops it in the depravity department, while Stay Wide Awake and Same Song and Dance just continue to compound Relapse's ability to have you nodding your head along to it while simultaneously thinking: "What the hell am I nodding my head to?" Basically, it's all a sick joke in poor taste. And, well, that's one of the the highest compliments a horror core album can receive in my book.
Of course Relapse is far from hitting every mark. In terms of recapturing the old magic with his old partners in crime Dre and 50, songs like Old Times Sake and Crack a Bottle are quite fun but don't hold a candle to Guilty Conscience or Patiently Waiting.
And then there are songs that are so bad that they are almost good. Bagpipes from Baghdad that started to whole Mariah Carey beef right now just feels like one of those silly time capsules into '09 in the vein of "oh right, that was a thing for some reason back then." The inevitable opening parody single We Made You, on the other hand, was already dated when it came out and a far cry from the likes of My Name Is and The Real Slim Shady.
Now, while songs like Déjà Vu, Beautiful and Undergorund do give us hints of the stronger work he would release in the following years, it’s clear that Relapse is an album that Em would have never made had he been at 100%. However, this is kind of where it's appeal lays. It's a concept album without a clear concept and, therefore, some of the most loose and easygoing music Shady has ever delivered. Like watching an unfinished painting that obtains its own separate value in its imperfect state, Relapse truly has aged like a fine (red)wine. At least, I think it's wine.
Shakira by Shakira (2013): Is Pure Enough?
Considering that this album is partially a love letter to the same person Shakira dedicated a literal disstrack towards 10 years later, it’s fair to say that the timing for writing about this particular album couldn’t be more off. Or, considering the theme of this article, maybe its the perfect time. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Here’s the thing, Shakira, in my opinion, is one of the most varied, multitalented, crosscultural and often underrated artists out there. As great as her chart topping pop hits are, its just takes a few peeks behind them to uncover an experimental and quirky artist, who has done everything from Spanish language rock, folk and reggae to hip hop and electro during her +30 year career.
In other words, for those in the know, the name „Shakira“ means so much more than just another pop artist. So, when she released an album bearing that name about a decade ago, it was unfortunate that it turned out to be one of the less memorable ones of her long career.
So, what went wrong? Well, oddly enough, nothing really. And maybe that was the problem. Thing is, while I don't think that great work only comes from dark places, the problem with this album seems to come down to lack of hunger, quirk and edge one would expect from her. She's clearly in a happy place on this album and the songs here are by no means bad. It just that, well, none of them impress as much as her earlier or later work for that matter.
However, while none of the songs are exceptional, this album does deliver the genre fluidity one would expect from a self titled Shakira album. Cut Me Deep and Medicine are not brilliant reggae and country songs respectively, but are still well made and display her range. Empire delivers a surpisingly strong channeling of Morissette, while the lead single Can't Remember to Forget You is undeinably energetic and fun despite being one of the more forgetable Shakira lead singles. Much like La La La is no Waka Waka (loved writing that sentence) but still packs that same energy. You Don't Care About Me, on the other hand, gives the album some sorely lacking edge.
Yet, even if the edge is missing, you can’t deny how pure this album is. The One Thing, for example, is as sincere of a representation of young mother's love as it can get. And, as for the elephant in the room—love songs dedicated to the same person a furious Shakira obliderated on a song 10 years later—lets put it like that: As many artists can tell you, even when the person about whom you wrote a love song turns out to be not that great, the love you felt at the time of writing the song is pure regardless. Almost detached from any specific person.
Therefore, it really doesn't take anything away from what this album is. A little island of happiness and contentment from a varied artist. It’s definitely not her best work and time has not been kind to it for obvious reasons, but you can still feel the warmth even when listening to it 10 years later.
Father of All Motherfuckers by Green Day (2020): Why?/Why Not?
So, no one gave a fuck about this album. Including Green Day. Here’s the thing, up until 2020, Green Day was one of those rare bands that had almost never produced a weak body of work. From their early days of Bay Area punk to rock operas of the '00s, almost every Green Day album felt like it had a strong reason to exist and that it was made by an extremely capable band firing from all cilinders.
The only exception to that was 2012's Uno... Dos... Tré! triple record, which despite a few hidden gems, was indeed a pretty aimless mess. However, as it was made during the height of Billie Joe Armstrong's drug addiction, it was easy to view it as more like a blip in band's otherwise strong discography. A point that was solidified with 2016's Revolution Radio, which saw the reenergized trio return to form with a strong record that both celebrated their roots, but also had a sense of coming full circle.
So, by 2020, everything seemed to be set for Green Day to deliver another landmark album. Especially considering the political climate of the time, which seemed almost like an invite for a band that made American Idiot to really go at it. Along came Father of all.
For many longtime fans it felt like a diminshing and substanceless return for what is a great band, while music critics disregarded it. And the general listener? Well, they probably don’t even know it exists. But it does. In all of it’s cover art glory, which looks like something Billie Joe Armstrong doodled together on MS Paint a day prior to the album's release. Indeed, from a band that gave us timeless social commentary, often ambitious musical experimentation and deep soulful lyrics, it felt preplexing to get what felt like a random glam and garage rock joint without any real theme, purpose or vibe. It was short, quick and even more quickly forgotten.
So, was it simply Green Day trying to get out of their record deal as the rumours were? Who knows. One thing is for sure. This is not the work by anyone, who even remotely cares what their fans, critics, studio or charts say. And, well, that might make it the most punk thing they have done in a while.
It honestly feels like the trio simply wanted to have a little bit of fun with classic rock of their youth and tinkered away. In fact, there are even times, where they hit their stride with it. Songs like Stab You in the Heart and Graffitia are genuinely intriquing examples of what might have been, if Green Day boys actually fully committed to this mixing of classic and garage rock with their punkier sound. The lead single Father of All is, at the same time, at least a genuine attempt to do something new and really shines during live performances.
Hopefully, their next project (right now know as '72') will see the band return to something more focused and substantial. However, for what it’s worth, it was cool to see the Green Day guys just take the edge off and have a bit of fun. After all, why the hell not? What do they have to prove at this point? In a sense, doing an album like this might have even been healthy for a band that was clearly struggling under the weight of their past successes. It’s there, they didn’t care. It's fast, fun and mostly quite energetic. Just take it for what it is.
To sum up
Looking at that list above, perhaps this is why I’ve never been too excited, whenever the subject of an artist’s prime is raised. Of course, every artist and band has that period of time in their career, where they were at their commercial and creative peak. It’s just that, well, it does often seem to shade whatever good stuff the said artist puts out later in their career simply because it doesn’t live up to these times, when they captured that lightning in a bottle.
Well, even if none of these albums didn't quite recapture that lighting in a bottle, it doesn't mean that they don't have some spark to them. Keep looking and listening beyond the peak.
About the Creator
So, to put it simply (and slightly cheesily) I'm fascinated with life. And, well, writing about films, TV shows, video games, music, travelling, philosophy and Formula 1 among other is a fun way to explore it.
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