Playing cover songs is a sign of creative fatigue
The covers (and cover art) of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait were equally lackluster.
There's nothing wrong with cover songs. In fact, before Sam Cooke and the Beatles shifted the established paradigms, singer and songwriter were two entirely separate professions. And there's also nothing wrong with a musician recording a cover album in the twilight of his career (Johnny Cash's American Recordings attests to that). Yet when you catch a once-great artist leaning heavily on their childhood record collection, you can be pretty sure their creative juices have gone dry and sticky.
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While tribute bands have their own post-modern, fourth-wall-crossing appeal, there is something undignified about a band whose celebrated work is several years behind them masking their creative impotence with crowd pleasers. It's a classic trick of illusionists: Distract the audience from the rusty mechanics of the show with a busty female in sparkly underwear -- or, in this case, a classic rock cover that gives the listener a dopamine boost of recognition.
The most recent example of this is Beck's use of Ford Motor Company cash to recreate David Bowie's Sound and Vision with a 160 piece orchestra. While the L.A. innovator has released a collection of decent albums in the last decade, we all must admit that Sea Change was the last time he recorded anything you'd play for your grandchildren.
The use of a giant orchestra can also be a sign of inspirational lag (Metallica, Elvis Costello), but in Beck's case the first three minutes of his performance -- where he playfully conducts a bizarre instrumental with the orchestra -- was possibly the second most interesting thing he's done in years (second, of course, to last year's Song Reader album of unrecorded sheet-music). Yet when he launched into the familiar melody of Bowie's 1977 classic, the show takes on a dreary uselessness that undermines the entire project.
When we look to Beck, we look to have our aesthetic perceptions challenged. This was the man who linked hip-hop and bluegrass, who basically created Flight of the Concords, and swirled our heads with imagery of "beef-cake panty-hose" and a "hepatitis contact lens." And we've come to expect the same from Beck's one-time backing band and eventual adversaries, the Flaming Lips, who have, in recent years, climbed even deeper down the rabbit hole of oldies appropriation.
This was a band whose performance art antics lead to significant bar-raising of the live show experience, a band that went from writing about a girl's lack of jelly usage to singing anthems on love in the face of death. Yet like their former collaborator, the Lips have yet to reach a fraction of the mind-blowing power they had a decade earlier with Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.
Consequentially, their once-boundary-bursting live show now depends greatly on tracks from their Dark Side of the Moon project, as well as predictable radio hits like "I Am The Walrus" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." Often, this is a sign that a band should just pack it in. We would love to be proved wrong on this, that Wayne Coyne's imagination keg hasn't been tapped dry, but looking at the issue from a historical perspective, getting stuck in the creative cul-de-sac of tributedom doesn't have many happy endings.