Musicians who have made their best music after the age of 65

Reaction to Leonard Cohen’s new album, made as he approaches his ninth decade, prompted the question – who else has made great music later in life?

Great albums by sexagenarians or septuagenarians are rare. Early response surrounding Popular Problems, 79-year-old Leonard Cohen’s new record, affirms that it belongs in that category. But the Canadian songwriter has already proved more fruitful than most in his twilight years, with Ten New Songs (2001) and, later, Old Ideas (2012) being among the best-received albums of his career.

In an industry obsessed with the preservation of youth, there’s a brilliant justice to the idea that often an artist’s creative juices in old age are more potent than they were in their formative years. We should also remember it was only recently, via producers such as Rick Rubin and XL boss Richard Russell, that the music biz began to venerate its elder statespeople with new records aimed at burnishing their legacies.

As for Cohen, the secret of his longevity is best explained by the fact that he’s always been a wise lyricist. Cohen was a respected poet before setting his verse to song in the late 1960s, and poets, it has to be said, have a better track record of retaining that vitality than popular recording artists.

But who are the other artists who saved the best until later in their careers? Here are five of the best albums made by musicians over 65.

Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)

Age when released: 70

Rick Rubin’s decision to record Johnny Cash in his living room, with just an acoustic guitar, was a revelation on 1994’s American Recordings, reinventing the man in black for a new generation and reviving a career which had hit the skids more than a decade earlier. But it was another record made with Rubin at the helm, 2002’s American IV, that really sealed the deal, thanks to an astonishing cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt, released as a single shortly before the country star’s death in 2003. The dignity Cash gives the song blows away any question of maudlin sentiment, but American IV is so much more than one moment: there are fine covers of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus and Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and, in the pitch-dark The Man Comes Around, an original composition to rank with Cash’s very best.

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (2004)

Age when released: 72

Jack White has returned to country rock on solo albums Blunderbuss and Lazaretto, but neither can hold a candle to Van Lear Rose, the album he produced for country legend Loretta Lynn, back in 2004. Although still very much Lynn’s album, after her record Still Country failed to provide Lynn with the comeback she’d been looking for in 2000, the White Stripes frontman’s less-is-more production made for an inspired pairing. The record is a joy from start to finish, but Portland, Oregon just about takes top honours for kicking the Nashville sound into a new century with such breezy panache.

Bob Dylan, Modern Times (2006)

Age when released: 65

Dylan’s late-career reinvention, beginning with 2001’s Love & Theft, ditched the overbaked studio stodge of Time Out of Mind (1997). Post-Y2K, Bob’s trick has been to strip away all the bullshit and reach back to the folk and blues of his youth, with a little pre-war pop thrown in for good measure. The result has been a slew of releases in which the words – and good ones, at that – have flowed with a torrential force not heard since his mid-1960s prime. Modern Times is a case in point, adding a salty dose of humour to the misanthropy of Dylan’s wilderness years and, in the mystical Ain’t Talkin, gifting us with one of his finest songs to date.

Scott Walker, Bish Bosch (2012)

Age when released: 69

You don’t enjoy Scott Walker’s music, post-Climate of Hunter. You either admire it for its cold-blooded genius, or curl up into a foetal ball and pray that it goes away soon. Though 2012’s opus Bish Bosch was a similarly intimidating prospect, there’s no denying Walker’s creativity has shifted over the years, and this work was of a more severe aesthetic; something scarily akin to a Diamanda Galás’s vocal interpretation of a Francis Bacon painting. A collaborative LP with revered doom-merchants Sun 0))) is next for Walker, so don’t expect things to start looking up anytime soon.

Dr John, Locked Down (2012)

Age when released: 71

Richard Russell’s records with the late Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack offer more state-of-the-art attempts to refurbish the sound of musical veterans. But part of the pleasure of Locked Down, Dr John’s 2012 effort with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, is that it doesn’t try too hard to be something new – instead, Auerbach merely applies a slick dash of production that snaps the New Orleans musician’s sometimes-meandering style into focus, without sacrificing the essential grit of his performances.

  • The standfirst of this blog was amended on 22 September to correct the number of decades
Alex Denney

The GuardianTramp

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