What should we expect from artists in their “mature” phase? What does the term “mature” even mean when applied to an artist? Two uses come immediately to mind, both pejorative, one more so than the other. First, it’s used as a synonym for staid and boring. When artists no longer provide us with any surprises, they are said to be mature. The other side of this coin is that artists are said to be mature when they settles into a style. The frivolous vicissitudes of youth are cast off in favor of a mortgage and a steady income. Reliability. Both connotations are polite ways of sounding the death knell of the creative phase of an artist’s career. And to be fair, this is representative of a large number of artists who either become lazy or complacent or just begin pandering to their audience. There’s even a fairly robust critical discourse dedicated to venerating these artists in their creative twilight. Critical acclaim for a “mature” artist is akin then to the Academy Awards recognizing a lesser late-period film of a once great director in a misguided attempt to make up for not lauding the worthwhile films from a few decades prior.
I began thinking about this idea while listening to Built to Spill’s new album, There is No Enemy. It can arguably be said that seven albums into their career, with the last three sounding remarkably similar, that BtS are “mature” artists. But while listening to Enemy, it seemed like neither of the derogatory connotations seemed to fit, and I began to think about what it is that we should really be expecting from artists as they age, as their own concepts of themselves solidify. Because that’s the positive connotation that’s left out of the idea of “maturity”: artists can be called “mature” when they begin to honestly understand who they are as creative people and when they begin to engage with the things they make from that place of honesty. Maybe people find the process of finding more engaging than the process of being. There’s something to be said, though, for the confidence that comes with that knowledge.
With Built to Spill, as well as say Yo La Tengo and even Destroyer’s last album, is it fair to chastise them for not continually changing? I feel like there’s often a pull, especially from the critical end, that demands constant novelty, and when that expectation isn’t met, there is disappointment and the artist is said to have lost it, to become a shade of her former self. But the pleasure that comes from listening to this music isn’t the pleasure of discovery, but the pleasure of watching them play their aesthetic game, exploring the ideas they’ve already discovered and finding new and interesting ways to hit those concepts. Maturity isn’t just the realm of monotony and routine, but rather the phase where artists have the ability to start on the same page as their audience and thus investigate the aesthetic the artist has created in concert with their listeners.
Enemy takes the game Built to Spill has been playing for a while now and hits the right emotions in the right way, and unlike someone like say, Bob Dylan, who completely abandoned exploring the game he created, haven’t become irrelevant simply for doing what they do well.