We recently ran an AVQ&A called “The B+ career,” on artists who always deliver very good—but never truly great—work. As a kind of sequel, this week’s question comes from reader Jim from Gainesville, Florida:
What artist (author, musician, director, actor, etc.) released one or more early A-grade works you love so much, you always feel compelled to consume their subsequent good-to-mediocre work even though you’re confident it’ll never be that great again?
This is a little bit of a weird pick, given that he released one of my favorite albums of last year, but there’s no doubt that 4:44 was a late-career anomaly for JAY-Z. Pretty much everything else he’s released since his return from “retirement” in 2006 has been varying degrees of lackluster—yes, even American Gangster, which was heralded as a return to form by hungry critics at the time. Still, my affection for Jay is as deep as the ocean, thanks to his incomparable album-per-year run from 1996 to 2003, which includes at least three straight-up As (Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, The Blueprint). I’ve even come to love the lesser albums in that span, growing weirdly nostalgic for the early ’00s Roc-A-Fella glory days. (I am, relatedly, the world’s last Beanie Sigel stan.) And so I will always gobble up a new Hova record or guest verse, eager to hear how the old fella’s holding up. The thing is, even at his most dumpy and out of touch, as on Blueprint 3, he still sounds pretty good, all things considered. It’s a lifelong fandom that hasn’t quite let me down yet.
The Monitor by Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s big and wild and passionate, but it’s also absurdly audacious, combining frontman Patrick Stickles’ frustrations with his life in New Jersey with the trappings of a concept album about the Civil War (complete with spoken word interludes from relevant historical figures like Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln). It really shouldn’t work but it all somehow does, and that’s a trick the band has not been able to pull off since. Local Business was very “back-to-basics,” and while it had some highlights, the lack of The Monitor’s grandeur made it fairly disappointing. The Most Lamentable Tragedy swung too far the other way, leaning too hard on its metaphor-filled story about manic depression and not enough on badass punk songs—though “Fired Up” and “Dimed Out” are certainly badass punk songs. I doubt Titus Andronicus can ever top The Monitor, but that album was so good and so ridiculous that I’m not sure the band really needs to.
Early in his career, Elvis Costello released two albums that are arguably perfect from front to back. First was 1977's My Aim Is True, whose B-sides are just as strong, if not stronger, than its singles. (Case in point: “Alison” and its B-side, “Welcome To The Working Week.”) Then there’s 1978's This Year’s Model, another front-to-back winner with such a wealth of good material, there was only room for an all-timer like “Radio, Radio” after shuffling around a couple of less famous, but equally worthy, tracks. After that, well—Elvis Costello kept making albums. More than two dozen of them. And while I’ll always give the new Elvis Costello a spin—or, let’s be honest, a click, I’m not actually buying most of these records—and, for the most part, like what I hear, he’s never quite matched the wit or infectiousness of those first two albums. The British Elvis is a post-A all the way.
I have a soft spot for a lot of the dance punk bands that grew to prominence during the ’00s. One of the few that’s still together and recording new tunes in the same mold is !!!. That’s a group I’m always willing to give a shot, despite not being wowed with any album it’s released since 2007’s Myth Takes, which I’ve always seen as an underrated high point of the genre’s most over-saturated era. After that, everything Nic Offer and his onomatopoeic disco punks have released has been just consistently fine. They’re records I’ll turn to for a good one-time pick-me-up and some natural head bobs, but outside of the occasional standout track—“Californiyeah” on Thr!!!er, “Wannagain Wannagain” on Strange Weather, Isn’t It?, recent single “The Long Walk”—I always find there’s not much of a reason to stick around longer than that. Hopefully, someday, they’ll change my mind.
Time has reduced Borat to a series of tired catchphrases and “My wiiiiife” memes, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film and his idiotically confident, cheerfully racist and sexist character are far funnier than its afterlife as ironically hacky quote-farm would suggest. It’s so funny, in fact, that I’ve dutifully consumed everything else Cohen has done, from his other good-but-not-quite-as-great “documentary” Brüno to The Dictator, a film I can’t remember a single thing about beyond that silly controversy involving Ryan Seacrest. That Cohen has seen only diminishing returns since 2006 isn’t totally his fault: Borat simply made him so famous that his whole shtick of assuming awful personae and interviewing the clueless—which he also did, to great effect, in his original Ali G guise—simply won’t fly anymore, forcing Cohen to create other, also-fictional people to react to his fake outrageous behavior. I guess my hope is that, if he keeps making movies like Grimsby, that’ll all work itself out.
The Wallflowers’ Bringing Down The Horse got its hooks in me at the perfect time of my life: It was the summer after high school (i.e., six years after the album came out, because that is the eternal lag-time of my ever-sluggish musical taste), I had a crappy pizza delivery job, and a close friend had suddenly died. So all I did that summer was drive around Terre Haute, Indiana, delivering lousy pizza and listening to Jakob Dylan croon, a setup that was both deeply pathetic and kind of perfect. Ever since then, I’ve always made a point of dipping back into the band whenever a new album comes out; I know the music’s not going to be good in the technical sense (see as example the embarrassing funk attempt “Reboot The Mission” from 2012's Glad All Over), but I also know it’ll reconnect me with a very particular kind of rich, deep adolescent sadness that the grey anxieties and depressions of my modern life could never hope to match.
Judging by the number of Frank The Rabbit costumes I still see every Halloween, I suspect I’m far from alone when I report having my young mind blown back in 2002 upon first seeing Donnie Darko, the feature-film debut by Richard Kelly. Having now seen it multiple times, it really does seem like one of those once-in-a-million Hail Mary moves, flaws and all, a project where these many insane and unwieldy moving parts somehow came together in just the right way. Since then, he’s only made two more films, both of which are... less than admired, shall we say. (I’d be hard-pressed to say which film I’ve heard people excoriate more, Southland Tales or The Box.) But I’d much rather see someone taking big, messy, ambitious swings for the fences than playing it safe; a fascinating disaster is far more respectable, I’d argue, than a timid attempt at crowd-pleasing. Which is why I’ll still be there the next time he releases a film. I’ll potentially be cringing by the end, but lightning does, on occasion, strike twice.
I’ve accepted the reality that David Gordon Green will probably never make anything I love as much as his very first feature, George Washington. He hasn’t really come close in the 18 years since that accomplished, affecting debut announced an exciting new voice in American independent cinema. For a while, I was needlessly tough on Green, frustrated by the diminishing returns of Snow Angels, and feeling downright flummoxed, even betrayed, by his turn from Southern-set drama to dopey stoner comedy with the trifecta of Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter. But I watched all of those films and have kept watching since, following DGG as he’s followed his muse, which all artists really should do, regardless of what their fans want or expect from them. There have been more lows and some relative highs. None have grabbed me the way George Washington’s poetic cocktail of Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett still does, but I’ve almost unconsciously kept up anyway—Green’s first movie has apparently earned him a lifelong spot in my Important Filmmaker appointment book, with October 19 the next circled date. I do draw the line at TV, though. Life is too short for four seasons of Eastbound & Down.