Every so often you wander into some establishment that insists that it’s doing things just like the past—they traffic in nostalgia, or the nostalgia of the styles of the past. (I’ve found myself thinking that as I went to a Restoration Hardware, to pick a perfectly good example). To pick another perfectly good example—and I guess the real subject of this post—take a pair of albums I just started listening to recently: “The Lady Killer” by Cee Lo and “Wake Up!”, the collaboration between John Legend and The Roots.
The latter is pretty explicitly about the past—it’s a covers album, specifically the protest songs of yore. The former is more spiritually inspired than anything else, and perhaps not coincidentally, it’s better.
The problem with “Wake Up!” is that the songs feel stale: there’s little energy in most of them (except for “Hard Times,” which has some of that Roots swing behind it with a good Black Thought verse). It makes sense that the songs feel stale—they were baked decades ago, and while the spirit of many of them feels applicable to the present, much of the specifics aren’t, and it’s my belief that art tends to succeed on the strengths of its specifics. Otherwise you’re left with generalities, and someone’s talked about most of the generalities at least once before. You need application; application is specificity. Or something.
“The Lady Killer” feels more like an inspired-by than a slavish imitation-of, which makes all of the difference. Start with the fundamental that you’re never quite sure what Cee Lo was inspired by, only that it was the past—there are Motown, disco, soul elements in the album, and the sum feels considered rather than imitated, like Legend/The Roots’ effort.
It’s probably a good idea, if you’re an artist or creator of some sort, to work out the proper relationship with the past, because chances are a good chunk of your ideas are in reaction to something to the past. Either you’re thinking about what went wrong with such-and-such novel or movie, or you’re inspired, and if that’s the case you have to wonder how to get something very old seem fresh.