You’re probably not aware of it, but history was made this week when the Scorpions released their 17th album, Sting in the Tail. Having finally run out of sexual euphemisms, the graying Teutonic belters have announced that Tail will be their swan song. They’ll hit the road to rotchoo like a hurricane a few more times — hell, given the way these “retirements” usually go, they’ll probably release another album before Klaus Meine releases his last pained howl — but nonetheless, we applaud the Scorpions’ decision. It isn’t often that artists have the guts to admit that their most creative days are behind them, even when they really ought to. While listening to Sting in the Tail and weeping hysterical tears of laughter over the bottomless, galaxy-shaped stupidity that went into songs like “Spirit of Rock,” we got to thinking about some other bands and artists who should probably admit it’s time to look into another line of work.
“Creed!” We can hear you screaming. “Britney Spears!” But friends, those targets are too easy. We decided to look at artists who once enjoyed a certain level of respect — enough, in fact, to keep diehard fans holding out for a return to form, despite all evidence to the contrary. Here are a few:
started sucking after: Spike (1989)
Listen, we love Elvis as much as the next crowd of crit-types, but c’mon — anyone who thinks he’s still trying hasn’t been paying attention. Yes, Elvis can still hit the mark when he wants to, and it’s rare that he puts out a complete dud, but he only gets partial credit for his two best albums of the last 15 years: the Burt Bacarach collaboration Painted from Memory and the Allen Toussaint-assisted The River in Reverse (and the latter was actually a deeply frustrating listen for anyone who isn’t insane enough to think Costello is a better singer than Toussaint.) While we recognize there will always be people who think Costello has another classic record in him, we’ve made peace with the likelihood that his aim is no longer true. You can content yourselves by cherrypicking through his tepid new releases, Momofukers; we’re just going to pretend they never happened.
A Low Point: “The Letter Home,” one of many dull ballads from 1993’s ponderous The Juliet Letters
started sucking after: Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993)
Sting’s been such an easy target for so long that including him on this list might seem unsportsmanlike, but really, the dude is talented — even if it has been a depressingly long time since he’s bothered to remind us. 1993’s Ten Summoner’s Tales is lightweight Sting, but it proved he could meld his muso tendencies with irresistible pop hooks; unfortunately, its huge success helped lead to a series of middling efforts more notable for their advertising tie-ins than their songs. By the time 2003’s wretched Sacred Love came out, Sting even seemed bored with himself — but instead of reaching for artistic rebirth, he put together a portfolio-fattening Police reunion tour and started releasing albums that clearly illustrated his boiling contempt for his audience. We’re guessing that after his album of medieval lute ballads, Songs from the Labyrinth, came out, that contempt started working both ways.
A Low Point: “Flow My Tears,” a randomly chosen low point from Songs from the Labyrinth
LL Cool J
started sucking after: Mr. Smith (1996)
Once so badass that he even made flashing chunks of deodorant in one’s pits seem cool, LL Cool J has spent the last decade and change sliding toward irrelevancy; when he isn’t starring in mediocre television shows and films, he’s releasing albums that make a mockery of his classic ’80s records. 1996’s Mr. Smith was a brief, albeit somewhat slight, return to form, and he’s worked up a sweat or two on recent releases, but he sounds more like a relic with each new album. It isn’t a good thing when news of an upcoming release triggers sighs instead of anticipation. Also not a good thing: Starring in anything with Chris O’Donnell, or releasing a single to promote your latest crappy TV gig.
A Low Point: “NCIS: No Crew Is Superior”
started sucking after: Automatic for the People (1992)
Once upon a time, R.E.M. proved that “college rock” and “Top 40 rock” weren’t mutually exclusive — and what’s more, they did it without sacrificing the qualities that made them such a cult favorite to begin with. In fact, they did it so well that they earned a fat paycheck from Warner Bros., at which point everything started falling to shit. Automatic for the People was alt-rock’s first adult contemporary record, a brilliant synthesis of the band’s deliberately fuzzy narrative aesthetic with beautifully brooding (and, more importantly, perfectly mom-friendly) arrangements. After that? Mostly meh. Monster had its moments, but it found the band reacting to trends instead of starting them, and even if you’re one of the folks who loves New Adventures in Hi-Fi, you’ve got to admit that subsequent efforts went from mostly uninspired (Up) to shockingly bad (Around the Sun). The fact that 2008’s Accelerate represented a surprising return to form sort of only makes us hate them more — if they don’t have to give us a paint-covered Michael Stipe mewling over languid guitars and drum machines, then why does it keep happening?
A Low Point: “The Worst Joke Ever,” a track from Around the Sun and a rather apt summation of their post-Automatic career
started sucking after: The Gold Experience (1995)
Prince is the worst kind of past-his-prime artist, because even though he sucks an awful lot of the time, everyone knows he’s perfectly capable of delivering the goods when he feels like it. Like a funky Van Morrison, Prince subjects his disciples to his mercurial moods, doling out heaping mounds of bullshit flecked with gold, and everyone goes along with it because things could change at any moment. Prince’s problem isn’t that he’s lost his muse, it’s that no one can tell him what to do anymore — or, more to the point, no one can tell him to stop releasing filler-laden albums and leave the B-sides in the vault where they belong. No matter how dire his albums are — and they can be pretty goddamn bad — they almost always include a song or two that reminds you Prince is just fucking with you, and he’s probably keeping his best music locked up because he thinks it’s funny. Son of a bitch.
A Low Point: 2009’s “Purple and Gold,” a song so bad it knocked the Minnesota Vikings out of the playoffs
started sucking after: Achtung Baby (1991)
There are a lot of good things about U2: Their amazing stability represents an ideal of musical brotherhood, their sharp social conscience has raised awareness of many important issues, and they saved Daniel Lanois from a lifetime of playing mandolin on Raffi records, just to name a few. And a new U2 album is one of the last real “events” in the major-label music industry, which always makes us feel good in a nostalgic sort of way. Unfortunately, nostalgia is about all the band has been good for since Achtung Baby — their best album of the last 15 years, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, was a success almost purely because it evoked the U2 we remember from The Joshua Tree. Their musical wanderlust is to be applauded, but there’s no getting around the fact that U2 does one thing really, really well, and that’s make music that proudly straddles the line between majestic and pompous. No one wants to keep making the same album over and over, except for maybe AC/DC, but U2 will forever be trapped in sepia, and their knowledge of this fact has led them to do some pretty foolish things over the last couple of decades. She like lemon — but we don’t, and we never will.
A Low Point: “Miami,” one of the worst things about Pop, a collection of worst things