Singing the praises of older voices

Leonard Cohen’s baritone has finally caught up with his doom and gloom persona.
Valentin Flauraud/REUTERS
Leonard Cohen’s baritone has finally caught up with his doom and gloom persona.

Popular music does not prize the older voice, at least not in this country. We are dazzled by the robust, youthful singers who part our hair on TV shows such as “American Idol” and “The Voice,” blast out of the radio, and belt from Broadway stages.

But what about artists who have been seasoned by life’s hardships and let us hear the results? Are we uncomfortable with them because they remind us that some day we, too, will be shadows of our younger selves?

I, for one, savor singers whose instruments are no longer spry and perfect, but nuanced and knowing. This year was flush with them, mature artists who released strong albums anchored by the wisdom and sophistication they bring to their singing.


Tony Bennett, Marianne Faithfull, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Robert Plant, Stevie Nicks, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, and Carlene Carter were all in top form in 2014, with voices that have mellowed like fine wines.

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Most of them aren’t working in the Top 40 pop format, which has historically been the sound of youth. And it’s staggering to realize how much more believable they have become in their advanced years. They wear their experiences like badges of honor.

Williams opened her new album, “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” in a wizened warble that nearly every review noted for its imperfections. She imbued “Compassion” with weathered grace that she couldn’t have put across as convincingly when she first started.

“My voice is better than it has ever been,” Williams, 61, tells the Globe. “I’m writing more now for my voice. That might sound funny, but when I was younger, I’d write songs that I didn’t always feel comfortable singing. ‘Passionate Kisses,’ for instance. It goes [she sings in a high register], ‘Passionate kisses,’ and if I wasn’t in good voice, I’d have trouble reaching the notes.

“I think I know how to use my voice better now,” she adds. “It’s only been with the last couple of albums that I found my voice, I guess. You have to make your limitations work for you rather than worry about getting everything right.”

FILE - In this April 23, 2014 file photo, Lucinda Williams performs on stage at the 31st Annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards in Los Angeles. Williams released a new album, "Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone," with 20 songs on two CDs. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File) 21mature
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
“My voice is better than it has ever been. I’m writing more now for my voice. . . . It’s only been with the last couple of albums that I found my voice, I guess,” said Lucinda Williams.


Some artists grow into their voices. Cohen, 80, who continued his renaissance with this year’s acclaimed “Popular Problems,” has a resonant baritone that finally caught up with his persona as a bard of doom and gloom. That voice was in place on his 1967 debut, but eventually he began to exploit it as part of his mystique.

His singing now imparts a sense of danger that belies the sweetness often at the heart of his songs. I remember as a teenager watching Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” which featured Cohen’s songs, and thinking, Who is that scary hobo who would probably knife me in an alley? It was my introduction to Cohen, and what a jolt it was later to discover the tenderness of “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah.”

That Faithfull sounded like damaged goods on “Give My Love to London” was nothing new. She has come across like that since 1979’s “Broken English,” after drugs and other vices wiped away the pristine gloss of her roots in ’60s folk. Now Faithfull, who turns 68 this month, is essentially a genre unto herself, one in which all songs are commentaries on the magnificent decay so profoundly apparent in her rasp. You believe every bedraggled word she utters.

Nelson has always been a distinctive singer, but at 81, he sounded downright old as dirt and just as elemental on “Band of Brothers,” his new album. Long after Led Zeppelin disbanded, Plant, too, has settled into a spectral elegance on his recent work, including this year’s overlooked “Lullaby and . . . the Ceaseless Roar.” He is perhaps the most lithe 66-year-old singer in rock.

Robert Plant performs on the Pyramid main stage at Glastonbury music festival, England, Saturday, June 28, 2014. More than 175,000 are expected to have arrived at Worthy Farm in Pilton to watch hundreds of acts amongst headliners, Arcade Fire, Metallica and Kasabian.(Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP) 14bestalbumsreed 21mature
Joel Ryan/Invision/AP /Invision/AP
Robert Plant.

Beset by legal and personal woes in recent years, Carter bounced back in 2014 with “Carter Girl,” on which she interpreted songs made famous by her family. Decades removed from her ’90s heyday as a high-octane country spitfire, Carter sang “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” from the perspective of a survivor.


“I like my voice now,” Carter, 59, says says in a recent interview. “Over the years that I made records before this one, I learned from producers like Nick Lowe and Howie [Epstein] that to sound younger was a good thing. We’d push everything really high, as high as I could possibly sing it. We actually used to speed up the record a little bit so that it had more energy and sounded younger.

It’s staggering to realize how much more believable these singers have become in their advanced years.

“Mind you, we were doing this when I was in my 20s!” she adds, laughing.

Not all voices age to perfection, of course. I don’t know anyone who prefers the craggy Bob Dylan of 2012’s “Tempest” over, say, his sublime timbre on 1969’s “Nashville Skyline.” Listening to Joni Mitchell’s new box set, “Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced,” which spans her whole career, it was a little heartbreaking to process how her voice has deteriorated after a lifetime of proud cigarette smoking. The feeling was still there; the notes, not so much.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Stevie Nicks.

And then there are the artists who, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, seem to defy gravity and time altogether. When 75-year-old Judy Collins eased into “Send in the Clowns” at the Wilbur Theatre in September, my jaw went slack as I realized it was a carbon copy of her 1975 studio recording.

Stevie Nicks, who, at 66, is still twirling and singing about gypsies, recently put out a collection of previously unreleased material called “24 Karat Gold: Songs From the Vault.” Her voice was so . . . Stevie Nicks . . . that I asked the publicist for specific production details. Turns out Nicks had recorded her vocals last year.

For her salute to girl-group greats, Midler summoned the sass and playfulness of her ’70s prime for her latest album, “It’s the Girls!” Aretha Franklin took a similar approach this year with “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” but it was hard to gauge how her voice is holding up through all the vocal processing. As I told a colleague at the time, Auto-Tuning Aretha Franklin is like dousing her seminal Muscle Shoals recordings with gasoline and striking a match: It’s a sin.

At 88, Tony Bennett was a nimble counterpoint to Lady Gaga on “Cheek to Cheek,” a collection of jazz standards he recorded with the pop star. Bennett has long been a proponent of the bel canto singing technique, which he uses to help preserve his voice. The edges of his notes are now frayed, sure, but modern Bennett still glimmers the way he did circa “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” more than a half-century ago.

In what could be her swan song, octogenarian jazz singer Annie Ross released a moving tribute to one of her idols, Billie Holiday. “To Lady With Love” was astonishing for its honest depiction of how Ross — who had a hit with “Twisted” (“My analyst told me . . .”) and was part of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross — sings at this late stage. Her voice was brittle in a way that suited the cracked beauty of the songs. It reminded me of how Lady Day herself sounded on one of her final albums, “Lady in Satin.”

Tony Bennett performs during a tribute concert to Billy Joel, the recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Tony Bennett.

I can think of a dozen singers whose recordings released past their initial prime changed the way I heard, and admired, them. Ella Fitzgerald’s intimate albums with guitarist Joe Pass in the ’70s were antidotes to the “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” stuff she chirped as an ingenue.

Or take Johnny Cash. His series of albums on the American Recordings label, which he began making with producer Rick Rubin in the early ’90s, became a blueprint for allowing us to accept the passage of time and the damage done to our heroes.

The virile swagger Cash once exuded on “I Walk the Line” was replaced by a husk of a voice belonging to an old man staring down death. Suddenly, the guy who once bragged about shooting a man in Reno, just to watch him die, was now broken and vulnerable on a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”

It was a brave move that prompted a reappraisal of Cash’s legacy. It was also a bittersweet reminder that, as so many albums proved this year, a voice doesn’t lose its power and strength just because the body does.

Related coverage:

- The best albums of 2014

- With double album, Lucinda Williams goes ‘Bone’ deep

- Album review: Lucinda Williams, ‘Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone’

- Album review: Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, ‘Cheek to Cheek’

- Album review: Robert Plant, ‘lullaby and... THE CEASELESS ROAR’

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.