Billy Joel doesn’t write new music anymore. He released his last album written and recorded by himself in 1993, twenty-five years ago, and his reason is simple: “I’ve seen artists on that treadmill, putting out albums year after year, and the albums get worse and worse, less and less interesting, and it’s, like, ‘Maybe you should stop.’”
Slowing one’s output can be beautiful. And history suggests artists might do well to release less.
I’ve got beef with people who call Nirvana the greatest band of all time. Now, Nevermind and In Utero are excellent records that helped define a generation, but we need to quit pretending their legacy is just about the albums they put out. It’s also about the music they didn’t.
Kurt Cobain’s tragic death also meant that they’d never get a chance to release their own Chinese Democracy. Limited output (three albums) is their legend, and the irony is listeners’ imaginary possibilities of “what might have been” are a reason Nirvana isn’t just a deserved paragraph in rock history, but a headline.
Many careers were cut short by tragedy then turned into legend. Bo Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, and Pete Maravich come to mind. They’ve only ever been at the peak of their professions, so that’s where they’ll always be. The output they left us with is considered excellent. They never had the chance afterward to churn out a dud or, god forbid, a series of duds. This isn’t to say injury or death is the key to a memorable career (although it does appear to help), but rather a limited, careful output.
The best living example might be Neutral Milk Hotel, who released the mesmerizing record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and promptly disappeared in 1999. No tours, no recording, no nothing. Aeroplane is a weird, wonderful work whose popularity ballooned once the band fell off the face of the earth. Their legend grew, and in 2013 they returned to headline festivals and play to thousands with nothing but the old songs.
Think about the artists who have put out too much work. How many more lame Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler movies must we suffer? What about Eminem’s cringeworthy new album? Or the last couple from U2, Coldplay, and Madonna? When was the last time a James Patterson novel was actually good?
This piece might also be titled, “why it’s a bad idea to blog every week.” Hand up, I’ve published works in places I now regret. I wish I could have them back, but I can’t. I was too excited to see my name above a piece that I blinded myself to its newfound permanence in the world.
Of course, if artists want to go full Bob Dylan and relentlessly release work because it’s what they feel like doing, then by all means, they should. It’s also near impossible for an artist to sustain themselves in 2018 without consistent releases. Maybe the real trouble is us as audience members. We tell ourselves, “wow, what if we could have gotten another Jeff Buckley record? Or another Heath Ledger movie?” when in reality we might not really want one at all — it’d tarnish the image we have of them. That Janis Joplin and Tupac’s collected works are masterpieces-or-close is what makes us adore them, then our imagination does the rest of the work. We should reassign our reverence for work that never existed to artists who are currently breathing and producing.
I’m going to keep producing art until it turns into a living, but I’ll also take much more care in choosing what gets out there. Revise a few more times. Sit on some pieces if they don’t feel just right. That instinct is what makes artists worthy of statues in our collective memory, permanently the way we like to imagine them. It’s what makes Billy Joel look so good after so much time.