Sep 11

Who Has Had The Most “Returns To Form”?

FT/84 comments • 1,868 views

Applied to pop, this question – discussed at some length in the pub last night – proves surprisingly complex. “Dylan” was everybody’s obvious answer* but the more we thought about it the less sure we were about this. So I throw it open to the Freaky Trigger readership and wish them joy with it.

*why yes, it WAS an all-male party, why do you ask?


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  1. 51
    hardtogethits on 21 Sep 2011 #

    This is enthralling, and I can’t keep up.

    Right at the beginning, Tom says “Applied to pop, this question … proves surprisingly complex”, and yeah, it does. At #44, there sure is “an implied paradox” in pop.

    Essentially, I think this is because in Pop we try to embrace two marginally separate meanings of “form” simultaneously. One meaning expected high quality (in sportspeak “in form”) and one meaning a series by which we’d evaluate what to expect (in sportspeak “form guide”).

    In other fields, the “form” sometimes includes all the peaks and troughs, sometimes not – but it’s easily understood, often implicit; in pop, it tends to mean something vaguely like (paraphrasing much of what’s upstream) ‘doing more of the type of work that this artist has already done well, critically and commercially’* .

    The paradox (for me) is manifold and it’s a itch I want to scratch. Really, I can’t though. This is longer than an average post as it is.

    I summarise, thus, apologetically aware of a similarity to others, esp #44: Every few years an artist of long-standing will be permitted by the media to have new material taken extra seriously*, and it will be propelled to unusually high sales through media interest. Far from returning to form, this defies form – bluntly, it reverses decline. Except, of course, for the fact that permission to defy form is the new form. So when the sales decline again following an album lauded as a RTF, that’s the real return to form. But no-one ever says so. That would be too rude.

    And yes it is (almost?) always blokes, and always albums:
    Costello, Neil Young, Bowie, Elton John, Neil Diamond, Dylan, McCartney, Duran Duran, Ozzy Osbourne…

    * see #45. It means interviews.

  2. 52
    punctum on 22 Sep 2011 #

    huh Duran Duran, that implies their having a form to begin with!

    RTF to me has always sounded like the sort of thing one says about a racehorse, which may say something about The Industry.

  3. 53

    Racehorses but also criminals! “This scrote has form as long as your arm, let’s feel his collar” etc.

  4. 54

    In fact come to think of it “Let’s feel his collar” means “We need to interview him”

  5. 55
    Pete on 22 Sep 2011 #

    From a literature point of view, the return to form I am most looking forward to is William Boyd, whose output has been on the whole really rather great, and then turned out the astonishingly poor “state of London” novel Ordinary Thunderstorms. So one of the tensions within return to form is in creating the great feeling of discovering someone great only for them to go off the boil. Does the talent run out, does the material/novelty run out or does just time pass.

    Can you return to form when you have jumped the shark?

  6. 56
    Pete on 22 Sep 2011 #

    @41 and @43 – is this why people are so annoyed by Stephen Soderbergh on the one hand and David Gordon Green on the other (the latter pulling the great trick of indie auteur darling moving to grossout comedies!)

  7. 57
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2011 #

    Re 56: I think people are baffled as much as annoyed by Soderbergh overall, although there is a feeling that the Ocean films are tremendously lazy (I find if you wait until they turn up on TV and catch them half by accident, they’re reasonably enjoyable). But he gets as much stick for some of his more off-beam projects… I’m not sure, though, whether there’s a clear sense of what the director-aware audience would want from him – apart maybe something a bit more like Out Of Sight.

    With DGG, it’s much clearer (and more like an indie band stumbling into the mainstream). He turned up with such a distinctive look/vibe – Malick goes to modern America’s forgotten rusty places that it did seem a bit jarring when he joined the Apatow conveyor belt (although he did try a serious film with proper-ish movie stars in between, just nobody saw it). I sort of enjoyed Pineapple Express, but it’s not a great film, and Your Highness in its way is as much a product of personal vision as George Washington – it just also happens to be dismally unfunny. I think the problem is that not so much that he’s making gross-out comedies, it’s that unlike, say, Greg Mottola, who also went from micro-budget indie director to Apatow employee (over a longer time span), he’s not very good at mainstream movies.

  8. 58
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2011 #

    Hang on, The Jam’s first single was in 1977 – a year’s a bit quick to find form, lose it then regain it, doncha think?

    Not necessarily. If the moment matters in a particular way, and the performer matters, then a year can be an eon.

    Wasn’t paying attention to the Jam, but it truly did matter to me that the third and fourth X-Ray Spex singles, and the album, live up to the first two. And they didn’t.

    Wasn’t aware of making the point that Lord Dubdob says I was. And (@42), I don’t think that being album-based or perceived as serious in a standard way is what makes Dylan eligible. Without “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” he isn’t part of this discussion (even if I may or may not have been even more moved by “Visions Of Johanna” and “Sooner Or Later”). Dylan’s eligibility comes from his seeming to have reinvented the world, reinvented what matters, what it looks like and what it sounds like. The need for a Return To Form is a need for him to confirm the reinvention, or to reinvent anew. Dylan exacerbated this by periodically turning his back on his achievements and his audience. In the ’70s, not only did we get Dylan’s supposed Returns To Form, we got new Dylans as well (Springsteen and G. Parker and Elvis Costello merely being the most prominent; anyone else remember Elliott Murphy?) (btw, for those who believe in transmigration of souls, I’d say that Dylan’s most emphatic return to form was The Marshall Mathers LP). So something needs to be perceived as at stake beyond “artistic regeneration” and “impressive mastery” and ilk.

    Of the performers I’ve mentioned, the one I’d link Dylan to, in regard to how people needed him to return to form, are Cher Lloyd and Elvis. Elvis’s most famous Return To Form was his 1968 NBC-TV special, which is now known, tellingly, as the Comeback Special (and which I paid absolutely no attention to when it happened, don’t recall even knowing it had happened, which tells you how ignorable Elvis was to teens in ’68; more ignorable then than now). Cher Lloyd came on as a gawky teen with attitude and style and almost no chops, and she gave two surprising (and I’d say her Shakespear’s Sister cover was stunning) performances – the urchin finding transcendence – seems clueless as to what to do next, and is finding all sorts of ways to fall on her face. So a Return To Form is both desired and plausible, given how implausible she was in the first place.

  9. 59
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2011 #

    As for actual returns to form, for which I consider artistic regeneration and impressive mastery quite sufficient, the Bee Gees and Neil Young are credible choices; but since I never paid persistent ongoing attention to their work, further detail would be welcome. Van Morrison might qualify as well, but I paid him even less attention. Miles Davis? Brian Wilson? Randy Newman? Willie Nelson? For all I know, Reba McEntire may be hitting her peak (which is to say I only know a smattering of her previous output; I’m surprised to like her recent album as much as I do, given that at one point I compared her voice to a frightwig).

  10. 60
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2011 #

    @58 “the one I’d link Dylan to” = the ones I’d link Dylan to

  11. 61
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2011 #

    Also, “always seem[ing] to have a return to form with every damn album according to at least one or two critics” and “seemingly every REM album is a proclaimed return to form by someone, even the really bad ones, to the extent it’s become a cliché and no one ever believes it” are not remotely equivalent to “gets five-star reviews in Rolling Stone and Spin and wins Pazz & Jop in a runaway.” So, reversing what I said upthread about the Fall, the reason Dylan seems the obvious choice, at least in proclaimed returns to form, is that he’s probably the right choice in proclaimed returns to form.

    I don’t have a horse in this race. I doubt that I’ve heard more than three songs from Time Out Of Mind, though I heard the two subsequent albs and threw a few P&J points at one of them. I also have never heard a full R.E.M. album (though did squeeze “Losing My Religion” onto my 1991 singles ballot), don’t even remember what the last Bowie album I heard in full was (Lodger? Scary Monsters?), and haven’t at all kept up with the discussion about R.E.M. and Bowie. But a seeming precondition for our perpetually being able to find someone to declare an R.E.M. or Bowie return to form is that it be surrounded by widespread disbelief and indifference. I realize that there is an alternative: what made Dylan’s ’70s return-to-form threepeat of New Morning, Planet Waves (with Before The Flood being the return’s supposed confirmation), and Blood On The Tracks (ditto for Desire) extraordinary is that it necessitated that, each of the latter two times, some of the proclaimers discount (or admit that in their heart they’d never believed) the previous return(s) to form that they’d endorsed. So there’s the incredible need for the return, and then the dawning realization that, no, this wasn’t quite the buzz we wanted. Which isn’t to say that everyone was on board for the return. I remember a review of New Morning that lamented that Dylan wasn’t an amoeba hence, unlike a band, he couldn’t break up. And the only Dylan album to actually win Pazz & Jop in the ’70s was The Basement Tapes, recorded circa 1967. But the return-to-form albums came with an accompanying discourse of “We’ve got Dylan back” (though Planet Waves came after a long layoff from recording and touring, so that was part of the return too).

    Whereas the accolades for Time Out Of Mind were from people who hadn’t expected or needed a great Dylan album.

    Those are the only Dylan returns to form that really register, the three in the ’70s and Time Out Of Mind, with Love And Theft confirming and building on the latter. I still think those returns beat any other artist’s in the category Proclaimed Returns To Form – though from what TriffidFarm @39 says about Black Tie White Noise, it’s possible that Bowie had a ’90s string to match Dylan’s ’70s. I wasn’t paying attention if he did, but that hardly means he didn’t. But that’s what it would take for Bowie and R.E.M. to really be in the running. Of course, artists with a specialized market or with fanbases that are socially or geographically distant from me might also be in the running, but obviously I don’t know who they are.

  12. 62
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2011 #

    (Cher Lloyd’s week three was a return to form after a weak week two, if I remember correctly. Her new single, unfortunately, is another belly flop.)

  13. 63
    Kit on 23 Sep 2011 #

    Beastie Boys

    not sure that anyone has ever accused them of making a return to form, ever

  14. 64
    Tommy on 23 Sep 2011 #

    Koganbot @ 59: I don’t think anyone’s ever claimed a return to form for Brian Wilson: 9 groundbreaking and increasingly complex albums in four years, before the age of 25 is hard form to return to. More that people are happy to hear him sing just about competently over an (admittedly spot-on) session band hits since he’s been through some awful shit.

  15. 65
    Tommy on 23 Sep 2011 #

    Ps Dylan is cheating these days by playing the old songs really badly (except Simple Twist of Fate) and the new ones really well. Obviously in a deliberate attempt to queer the pitch.

  16. 66
    koganbot on 23 Sep 2011 #

    He’s also cheating by creating really good bands. I’d say bass and drums on Love And Theft and Modern Times decisively beat the bass and drums on “Like A Rolling Stone.” So if I were judging solely on bass and drum…

    (When Sony was promoting its Soundtrack For A Century series it had a promo CD that made the mistake of putting “Like A Rolling Stone” right before Sly’s “I Want To Take You Higher,” making “Like A Rolling Stone” sound dead in the water – which it isn’t, and for rocking harder emotionally (and intellectually too, for that matter) I’ll take it over anything in Sly’s oeuvre. But sometimes the body wants more than emotion and insight.)

  17. 67
    koganbot on 23 Sep 2011 #

    But a point I don’t want to get lost is that there isn’t a difference in kind between wanting a Dylan or Young to return to form and wanting a John Shanks or a Timbaland or a Frank Farian or a Lukasz Gottwald to return to form, or a Kelly or a Britney or an Ashlee.

    @44 some quality assumed not to usually inhere in the (popular?) art-form the artists under regard are working in

    But certainly Louis and Elvis and Dylan etc. created our idea of what is possible in the art forms, and once those possibilities are there, they can’t be withdrawn – at the most will only fade or go into remission. Don’t know enough about Korean music, but I’d wager that acts like Seo Taiji in the ’90s and 2NE1 right now are living in a space of possibility partly created by Dylan and Michael Jackson, and that here in the U.S. the commentariat underestimated the extent to which groups like *NSync and the Backstreet Boys were living in such a space (and ’90s Michael Jackson was living in a space partly created by New Edition, like the Backstreet Boys and *NSync were)(btw, to complicate the story further, Teddy Riley is now producing records in Korea).

  18. 68
    koganbot on 23 Sep 2011 #

    And people underestimate the extent to which Dylan was like a Fabian or an Anka even while cutting the ground out from under the Fabians and Ankas.

  19. 69
    Ed on 24 Sep 2011 #

    A bit late for this, I know, but are we agreed that the *genuine* return to form, as opposed to the phony one proclaimed by deluded or venal critics, is a vanishingly rare event?

    Most careers seem to follow a pretty regular arc, in which the musicians work to master their craft and reach some form of artistic peak, after which their lives are dedicated to tending a dwindling flame until it gutters out altogether. (if they are lucky, the peak of creative achievement coincides with their period of critical acclaim and commercial success, and it’s an imperial phase.) In some mournful cases – Arctic Monkeys, Pavement, Pink Floyd – a band will emerge fully-formed with their first album, and the whole of the rest of their careers will be about managing decline.

    So while the single-level RTF may be pretty common – Girls Aloud coming back off a duff run with ‘Biology’, for example – the album-level ones almost never happen. Elvis ’68, certainly,’LA Woman’, the Bee Gees going disco (although that was not so much a return to form as a re- flowering of genius in another idiom), maybe ‘Rust Never Sleeps’. But not many others. What am I missing?

  20. 70
    swanstep on 25 Sep 2011 #

    @ed, 69. Pink Floyd emerged fully-formed, and it’s managed decline thereafter? I don’t see/hear that at all. I’d say that they had a paradigmatic career arc: a couple of albums figuring out what they want to do and can do, followed by an imperial period from Meddle to Wish you were Here, followed by decline/feuding/bitterness/recrimination/partial successes at best thereafter.

  21. 71
    Ed on 25 Sep 2011 #

    @70 You’re right, actually. Pink Floyd is a bad example for the point I was trying to make. As you say, there was a huge amount of experimentation up to about DSOTM or WYWH, and it was only then that they really found a niche and decided to stick with it. I still think the first album is their *best* album, but that’s a different point.

    Another late thought: isn’t it the case that almost all the people who have genuine RsTF are the ones who move between a variety of styles and genres? Dylan, Prince, Bowie, Young: it’s certainly true for all of them. Sometimes a change of style revives flagging inspiration; sometimes it is experimentation that caused the dip in form, and artists renew themselves by returning to what they do best. Either way, it seems easier to manage an RTF that way than by just plugging away at the same patch of ground.

  22. 72
    vinylscot on 29 Sep 2011 #

    Sparks anyone?

    At least two, maybe as many as four, “RTF”s although one (No1 In Heaven) seems to have been a false start.

    There is a tendency, probably in my example and certainly in many of those above, of conflating a “return to form” with a simple “change of direction.” While not mutually exclusive, these are not the same thing.

  23. 73
    MarkG on 29 Sep 2011 #

    Did anyone mention Paul McCartney? (solo, obv).

  24. 74
    chelovek na lune on 29 Sep 2011 #

    I think there is more of a case to be made for the argument that Macca has had more returns FROM form (or at any rate, to varying degrees of crapness) than almost anyone else.

    Although I suppose that is the inescapable flip side of this sort of claim…

  25. 75
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 29 Sep 2011 #

    I would cheekily argue that “form” is the one element of music-making that PM has possibly always been weakest at; he retained a genuinely original ear for startling moments in songs — textual mainly — long after he stopped bothering to think of ways to string them together (as anything except a string); and long after he worked with people who advised him to omit the dull or sententious passages from the exact same strings.

  26. 76
    hardtogethits on 29 Sep 2011 #

    #73. Strictly in answer the question: Yeah, I mentioned McCartney, at #51.

  27. 77
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 29 Sep 2011 #

    textual s/b textural obv (in this ever-changing world in which we live in)

  28. 78
    MarkG on 29 Sep 2011 #

    Ah, i was scratchin my head at the thought that PMac had original texts in his songs, whereas most seem to regard most of his lyrics post Let-it-be as ‘will-this-do?-yeah-course”..

    As you were..

  29. 79
    Ed on 29 Sep 2011 #

    @72 “Return to form /= change of direction”.

    Yes, but the two often seem to go together, don’t they? Bowie reanimates himself by trying something new. Prince gets fired up again by bringing back the funk.

  30. 80
    Tommy Mack on 1 Oct 2011 #

    No-one’s mentioned the opposite. What about artists who nail it so right on their first go that they spend the rest of their careers playing catch up?

    Wu Tang Clan
    Jesus and Mary Chain
    and, on some days, I’d say, The Who

  31. 81
    thefatgit on 1 Oct 2011 #

    Tommy, you can add Oasis to that list.

  32. 82
    Tommy Mack on 1 Oct 2011 #

    I thought about Oasis, but, while I much prefer Definitely Maybe (and it seems to be the only Oasis album with any critical reputation left) it was Morning Glory that really delivered the tunes the milkman could whistle, which was what Noel G always said he was about. Of course once milkmen start whistling your tunes, critical backlash is never far behind. Critics hate milkmen. Next time you take coffee with a critic, take a look in his cup. Black as the Ace of Spades I’ll bet.

    Obviously, everything Oasis have done since 1998 is toss.

  33. 83
    lonepilgrim on 11 Oct 2011 #

    This article on influential artist(e)s with small bodies of work seems marginally relevant:


  34. 84
    pink champale on 11 Oct 2011 #

    @80 are you saying that the Wu shot their bolt with 36 chambers? I wouldn’t agree with that at all.

    For one thing, their imperial phase was surely 95/96 with tical/ironman/liquid swords/cuban lynx, which is the single greatest run of albums ever put out by anybody (who else? dylan’s 64-66 explosion, I might give you) and was followed only a few months later by QUADRUPLE ALBUM Wu Tang Forever which, okay, isn’t exactly totally without filler but is largely pretty great and has got stuff like ‘a better tomorrow’, triumph’ and ‘impossible’, which no one has ever caught up with. For another (and here’s where I might lose people) i’ve never quite got 36 Chambers and think that 2000’s The W is probably the best Wu-group album overall – Careful! Hollow Bones! I Can’t go to Sleep! Gravel Pit! (though I concede that pretty much nobody else thinks this).

    While I’m asserting and not proving, I’ll also mention that I saw the Wu live a couple of months ago for the first time and they were spectacularly good – not only much better than I expected, but better in a totally different way. I was thinking i’d get something all crabbed and murky and introverted like the records but it was instead a brilliantly good natured showbiz celebration – though I’m not sure I’m ready to proclaim a return to form just yet (and er, yes, *of course* some of them didn’t turn up – rza, ghostface and inspectah deck, i think).

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