Every so often, an established artist with a proven formula will suddenly decide to take a hard left turn. This isn’t about routine artistic evolution – going unplugged, incorporating new instrumentation, making a covers album or other such diversities. I’m talking about those rare times when successful artists re-imagine themselves from the ground up and, in the process, abandon a reliable or profitable style for something new, daring and unproven. Guys like Bowie, Madonna & Costello have, more or less, made their careers by trying on new suits, but rarely like this. Dividing line albums have always been fascinating ones, and you’ve probably got your own favorites, too. Here are three of mine that fit the loose criteria of artistic reinvention. Track Listings In Comments.
Colossal Head (1996)
Before: Roots Rockers
After: Weird Uncles with Cheesy Amps
1992’s Kiko was incredible. So well-produced with so many sonic textures, like a Sgt. Pepper’s of serious SoCal/Mexican pop. Which made hearing Colossal Head all the more alarming. With the help of Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom (a union that spawned the Latin Playboys with David Hidalgo & Louie Perez), these tapes sound like water-logged rehearsal cassettes recorded in someone’s kitchen. It wasn’t just the lo-fi appeal that was so jarring, it was how the raw, garage band arrangements brought out the simplicity of Los Lobos‘ East LA Mexi-rock aesthetic. Once you absorb the percussive clatter the catchy tunes will stick to you as easily as manufactured pop, while being the total antithesis.
Before: Beatnik Piano Jazz
Tom Waits had stretched his bohemian, beatnik poet routine to its breaking point by the early 80s. His voice had become a caricature of his early 70s prowess and his “identity” had become little more than that of a drunken lounge lizard (part of the act) who could tell a good story. Swordfishtrombones changed all that. Seemingly overnight, Waits jettisoned every thing he had built over the years (including his label, manager and producer) to create this mesmerizing, self-produced array of thrift shop racket, found-sound symphonies and out of tune/out of breath otherworldly storytelling. Common themes like late night diners, trucks and bars have been replaced with freakish, disjointed howling and Kafka-esque nightmares of the common man. The cover says it all… Fellini-esque sideshow midgets and a room full of instruments that have rarely been put together in such a way before. Waits never looked back.
Before: Sunny Singalong Popsters
After: Psychedelic Revolutionaries
It’s true, their previous LP, Rubber Soul, was a unique departure as well (in fact, half of their albums were). So it is written that in April, 1966, when The Beatles started work on Revolver, the first song they would record (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) essentially invented psychedelic music… as far as the masses were concerned, anyway. There were others doing it, but not on this scale, and not by these guys. Revolver includes (maybe) my favorite Beatles song, “I’m Only Sleeping,” along with Lennon’s stomping “And Your Bird Can Sing,” plus three (count ’em) outstanding George Harrison tunes. Taking 3 months to complete, this was The Beatles’ stepping stone to Sgt. Pepper’s (yet another unique departure). Still, Revolver was the album that first introduced the band’s startling individualism, advanced studio trickery, outside-the-box creativity and stylistic diversity, forever leaving behind a legacy of teenage pop songs.