High Hopes: is talent finite?

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This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn’t listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that.

But something’s happened to Bruce. Or to me.

I should say that I’ve been a Springsteen fan since I first heard “Rosalita” as a twelve-year-old back in Tennessee. I was in college when Born in the USA made him a superstar, and I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, with the E Street Band, the ’92 “alternate” band, the Sessions Band, and as a solo performer. I own all his legitimate releases, and a fair stack of bootlegs.

And yet…

His last album, 2012’s Wrecking Ball, was the first time I felt like he was singing at me instead of to me, or for me. The new Celtic and overt gospel influences couldn’t disguise that these songs just lacked…something. And the re-recording of “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” released in a definitive version on the Live in New York City album in 2000, was simply unnecessary, as if he needed something to fill out the album (I’m not saying this was the case, just that, to me as a listener, it felt that way).

And now we get High Hopes.

Even the title track has been released before, back in 1995 as part of the Blood Brothers documentary package. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was part of the same Live in New York City album mentioned above, and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was the title track of his Grammy-winning 1995 album. So right off the bat, there are three songs that we’ve heard before in landmark original versions. Yes, these are new versions, livened up by Tom (Rage in the Machine) Morello’s guitar solos, and certainly there’s no lack of commitment to the performances. But it’s also the equivalent of hearing stories we already know instead of new ones.

Which leads to the question: what’s the point of the album?

My friend Melissa Olson, author of Dead Spots and Trail of Dead, once said that she thought some artists might just have a finite amount of art in them. This was apropos of director John Carpenter, whose work has certainly showed a decline, although I remain a fan (yes, even of his most recent film The Ward). I would never have thought this of Bruce, but perhaps it’s the case. Maybe the Boss has reached artistic retirement age. Certainly his last couple of concert tours have been more about preaching to the choir than converting new followers, a celebration of past glory days (heh) more than a forging of new ones. And maybe, at 64, that’s to be expected. But I’d hoped to follow him into the twilight with the same fervor I felt when he led me into adulthood.

JohnCarpenter2010

Filmmaker John Carpenter. Does he have any mojo left?

And, since I’m not exactly young myself (nor old, I should add), I wonder with each new book if the same thing might happen to me. I don’t want to keep going past my sell-by date, artistically speaking. But will I know when I reach it?

So what do you think? Is there a finite amount of creativity and art in every artist?

11 Comments on “High Hopes: is talent finite?”

  1. No, Alex, I don’t; take heart.

    I do, however, think that there may be a finite number of works to be created by one ‘voice’ (be that songwriter, fiction writer or any other creative type) *within the same patch of ground*.

    I think the twin dangers are therefore (a) the rewriting of things one has already written (although one may sometimes make a better job of them in later years with one’s more practiced hand) or (b) moving away from the territory one is used to occupying, creatively.

    For this reason I think many lasting and prolific creatives continually or sporadically shift the boundaries of their creative space to encompass new fields and ideas. The trick is to connect those new areas to the existing well-mapped ground so that your listeners or readers can follow you there.

    That, and just… not stopping for too many years in the middle, which can lose you creative momentum and contact with whatever it is that inspires you.

    My tuppenceworth, anyway. You might have guessed I’d weigh in here! I love a good creativity-geekout. 🙂

    (For disclosure, I’ve been writing songs steadily for over twenty years, and still find new territory and new shapes and new things to say, but I like to think that on the whole I’m saying them better much of the time than I did when I was young and clueless and ran on inspiration more than craftwork.)

  2. I have to say, though, his cover of Warren Zevon’s “My Ride’s Here” on the Zevon tribute album brought me to tears. Because HE was truly mourning and that song was played in concert just a few days after Zevon’s death, so there was a lot of raw emotion there and that made it so moving.

    While I don’t think talent is necessarily finite (and hoping in my own personal case that it is NOT!), but I think that many artists get in a rut, doing what they know, doing what has always made their wages in the past. And I think after a certain age, they might not know how to truly break free and tackle something new.
    They get too comfortable in that groove and that groove becomes a rut.

  3. Maybe Bruce is enjoying his family and life enough to have less to give to his art. His connection could be more deeply focused more deeply there, making his connection to his listeners more superficial.

    I don’t think it’s a finite amount of art, but I think there is a finite window (for most) to produce their best art. Life/creative force, brain cells wane over time and later in life, instead of being single-minded and focused, we gain more balance and interest in other things. Art creation gets less attention in the later years. That is the best time for an artist to teach others. Maybe art, over time, gets a smaller piece of the pie. And the ARTIST identity and drive has to be more greatly shared with other things. The “I” gets watered down. Maybe more life experience means few convictions. The older/wiser bigger picture we attain = less to express.

  4. Not sure about if artists only get a finite amount of imagination and drive at the beginning of their life which depending how prolific their work and time spend on producing it is. Science Fiction is not a genre I personally read but I can see a plot in this theory.
    On the other hand maybe Springsteen’s quota of creativity has run out but not his drive to still having to be seen to create something.

  5. I’m not sure it’s time or age that is the problem. I think that comfort and success can lead to stagnation. There is only so long you can mine your original inspiration – the thing that originally gave you passion. If you want to remain creative, you have to find a new thing that makes you burn, and if you are comfortable and settled and cushioned from the day to day realities of the world, I think new sparks can be hard to ignite.

    Stay angry, stay hungry, put as few buffers between yourself and day to day survival as you can stand, and life will continue to strike sparks off you, and you will continue to have the tinder to turn them into fires.

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  7. I want to know how many of the album decisions Bruce made himself. He may be incredibly creative and prolific sitting with his Telecaster by the pool in Rumson. But his image and PR people mold the package to maximize audience and profit.

  8. I’ve thought this same thing for many years. I DO believe that creativity is limited (not certain I believe in “talent”). We see it in every profession, people losing that spark, and we give them a pass because of the entertainment they’ve provided us in the past.
    Some people are more creative than others, and their wells never appear to empty, but for the most part I believe you are correct. Most of us run out of juice.
    We hate to think of our heroes as washed up. It hurts us. It’s a natural process, though. We all have our limits. Some of us are lucky enough to reach them, and others are lucky enough to die before anyone can realize we have limitations.
    So make the most of everything.

  9. The same arguments have been made about Van Morrison. A lot of critics have said that his newer stuff doesn’t compare to “Astral Weeks” or “Moondance”. I know as a fan, I want artists to push the boundaries and challenge me. Yes, like you, I felt that “American Skin” and “Ghost of Tom Joad” didn’t need to be there, but he felt a reason to do an album with a lot of covers.

    Maybe he’s just trying to work through something?

  10. Yes, but only insofar as mortality limits us. Maybe the Muses went to Aruba instead of Bruce’s house this time, but there are many artists who produce throughout their lifetimes. Excellence will wax and wane, but I think that those who wrestle with the Muses, chase them down, plead with them, coax them to stay for just five minutes, etc., will find inspiration eventually. Those too complacent to struggle with the Muses will produce work, but uninspired work is just “meh.”

    Does that make sense?

  11. I can’t refer to Springsteen’s new album, but I do have to agree that a lt of writers seem limited as they age. That they repeat, or run out of new themes, or seem to run out of interesting things to say.

    I could point to the second Amber series, such a let down from the first. (but then, of course, Zelazny came back right before the end for the wonderful NIGHT IN LONESOME OCTOBER.) There are final seasons of television shows that normally seem like the hearts not there. I could mention the final Lankhmar stories, written by an aged Leiber, that really seemed to lose their magic.

    I worry about such things myself, sometimes. Some artists carry-on doing interesting work. May it be that we both are the latter, and the not the kind who begin to produce shadows of our former works.

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