Kyle and Josh have an interesting discussion over at the AV Club: does rock and roll ever forget? They're talking about an artist that has an appealing creative quality for a while, but then it seems like the quality is gone. To further illustrate their point, Kyle quotes a line by Abe Simpson: "I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to me."
The main example they use is Ian MacKaye. MacKaye has made a wide variety of rock music since 1979 and has been pretty consistent. The Slinkees/Teen Idles and Minor Threat played fast punk rock, Embrace was not as fast and a little darker/moodier, Fugazi was arty and jazzy and his current band, the Evens, is softer and melodic. Does he still have the proverbial 'it'? I think so, but I can understand why people may still play 13 Songs more than Get Evens.
My opinion on the Evens is this: their music is worthwhile, but definitely not something I listen to on a regular basis. I still prefer Fugazi as I'm still finding new and exciting things about their back catalog. I'm glad MacKaye is still playing music and running Dischord, but I'm more interested in which classic record from Dischord's catalog will be remastered next. That's just me.
For almost any artist that has stuck around for years, there's a point where it feels like there's a plateau or a sharp decline. I could really care less if Weezer makes another album, but I'm curious about what Wilco does next. I used to be someone that bought every record by every act that I loved, but that's not the case now.
For me, I want the essential records more than every record. I'm fine with my copies of The Blue Album and Pinkerton while my copy of The Green Album collects dust. I'm not really interested in what River Cuomo does next, but I'll probably take a listen. I know that lightning is hard to bottle, so when I'm hearing something new that doesn't grab me, I look for something else that does. Fickle? Maybe, but it's all in the pursuit of a rush rather than a sense of loyalty.
A frustrating thing is this: what about bands that have so many albums that it's difficult to say there is one truly essential record? Sonic Youth is a great example. Here's a band that I was never really into in high school and college, but have warmed up to them in the last few years. From what I've heard and read, they have some really essential stuff, some so-so stuff and some clunkers in their catalog. Most people would recommend Daydream Nation first, but then promptly recommend Sister, Goo, Dirty and one of their last few records if you like Daydream Nation. Having only Daydream Nation just wouldn't be enough. After all these years, Sonic Youth still have that creative zest, but it's doubtful they'll make something that eclipses Daydream Nation.
Familiarity is a good thing but it can also be a turn-off. I doubt that Tom Waits' forthcoming Orphans will break any new ground for him as an artist. Yet for people like myself that enjoy almost all of his stuff, we want to hear it. I can understand why someone would want to remain at bay with Small Change and Rain Dogs because fandom takes on different meanings for different people. Come to think of it, it's the fans that decide whether or not somebody still has "it" or not. For me, I'm happy a number of artists stick around and still kick out records even if the new records don't match up to the previous stuff. It's better than stopping prematurely and wondering what might have happened. Yet sometimes, we're screaming for mercy when there's too much to process.