Johnny Cash
Five artists who defied the odds on their return...

Following the news that Sir Paul McCartney is gearing up to release his first album in five years, ‘Egypt Station’, we look at five other artists who’ve experienced late career highs.

We tend to view the career span of the popular musician as not too dissimilar to that of the footballer. And while at this year’s World Cup Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary is an anomaly at 45 years old and still holding down a place in their squad, a fair few musicians who blossomed in their 20s are, in later life, forced to play heritage tours or enter a kind of stasis where they release precious little good new music or a series of creative missteps that are often overproduced, lazy or just odd.

The comeback album is a difficult one for many – kowtow to their existing fanbase or go out on a limb and risk alienating it? Explore new sonics or stick to what they know? How to overcome the pain and, in many cases, addiction which comes with success, burnout and invisibility?

These five managed to handle it commendably though…

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Sharon Jones

The late singer didn’t exactly experience an early career high, not releasing her debut record until she was 40. Before then, she’d worked as a prison officer and armoured car guard. Talk about prosaic…

But the next twenty years were marked by critical acclaim, film cameos, a documentary about her and work with Lou Reed, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. On her own, and with the Dap Kings, she was a key force in renewing interest in soul and funk, and Daptone Records continues to proffer some stellar releases.

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Gil Scott-Heron

The millennium didn’t start well for Heron as he was imprisoned for cocaine possession. Towards 2010, he resumed live performances and the BBC started to fawn over him with documentaries and a Newsnight feature.

All this culminated in the brilliant ‘I’m New Here’, his first release in 16 years. The Guardian’s Jude Rodgers remarked how it would surely feature in a list of the 2010s’ best. ‘We’re New Here’, Jamie xx’s reworking of the 2010 album, was also warmly received. It brings to mind Damon Albarn’s work with Bobby Womack, which did much to cement the latter’s legacy.

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Johnny Cash

It’s fair to say the 80s weren’t the rosiest years of Cash’s life – he developed an addiction to painkillers, had a heart bypass and, by his own admission, felt a bit ‘invisible’. ‘American Recordings’ in 1994, then, represented a significant turn of events.

His 81st album, it featured originals and covers of songs from Danzig (‘Thirteen’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Bird On The Wire’) produced by Rick Rubin, and it was critically acclaimed in most quarters. A few months later, he was greeted with rapturous applause at Glastonbury 94.

Cash released more in the ‘American’ series, which consisted largely of covers by (usually male) artists ranging from Nick Cave to Trent Reznor. He stuck to what he knew, lending his gravelly voice and the sparse production with which he’s associated to reworkings of already popular songs – a recipe for success.

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Marianne Faithfull

For the singer, the 60s were halcyon days nevertheless tinged with much pressure and turmoil. These came to a head in the 70s with drug and alcohol abuse and struggles with anorexia, which she channelled into 1979’s landmark ‘Broken English’.

Whilst it didn’t prove to be a panacea, the singer has continued to release, crucially, some interesting and innovative tunes, including ‘Before The Poison’ on which she worked with PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Damon Albarn.

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Bob Dylan

Dylan went out on a limb in the mid-60s with the electric guitar and got even bigger. But the 80s was an altogether rockier decade for him. It began with his conversion to born-again Christianity and was marked by a series of shoddy albums (which nevertheless still have their admirers), a foray into rap and disappointing collaborations with the big guns of popular music.

But the 90s saw the launch of the Never Ending Tour, and his work hasn’t really let up since. ‘Time Out Of Mind’, his 30th record, stands out for its quality and Daniel Lanois’s hazier production. Oh, and ‘Highlands’, Dylan’s longest studio recording (16:31). Now that’s a comeback.

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Paul McCartney will release new album 'Egypt Station' on September 7th.

Words: Wilf Skinner

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