Nobody ever called the 1970s the golden age of rock music — which is probably a good thing. While '60s icons like the Rolling Stones and the Who now toil in the shadow of their adolescent glories, husbanding what's left of their credibility, the '70s acts have been able simply to move on; no need to recapture the magic of, say, 1975. Just by sticking around, former no-accounts like Don Henley, Sting, John Cougar Mellencamp and Aerosmith can now stand as models of musical dignity, fairly blushing with the credibility they never had in their youths. Time, which Mick Jagger once claimed was on his side, has been much kinder to rock's second generation than to its first.
It has been particularly kind to Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, all of whom have just released particularly strong new albums, full of such underrated '70s verities as good melodies, guitars and subtlety. Throw in a surprisingly good new Paul McCartney album and a fresh comeback by '80s upstart Marshall Crenshaw, and you've got a summer's worth of funky, mature new rock and roll, the long-due equivalent of Hollywood's "small," idiosyncratic movie.
McCartney's Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), recorded live on MTV's acoustic Unplugged program, is a gift. For a guy who wrote the book on aging gracelessly — now mired in decline for twice as long as he was a Beatle — he really does recapture some of the magic of his youth. Without amps or ceremony, he sings a handful of Beatles songs, some pre-'60s inspirations and the first song he ever wrote, called "I Lost My Little Girl." His slowed-down "And I Love Her" is as serenely beautiful as anything he's ever recorded. The performance is a turn of rare restraint, pristine but short-lived: last Friday the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic premiered his Liverpool Oratorio, an eight-movement work for 300 performers, written with American Carl Davis. Unplugged was issued in a limited edition of 500,000. Hear it or take "Silly Love Songs" to your grave.
Raitt's Luck of the Draw, the follow-up to her 1989 Grammy winner Nick of Time, lands her in the thick of romantic entanglement, wrestling with the cold complexities of adult love. Nick of Time agonized about finding love; Luck of the Draw, recorded during her engagement to actor Michael O'Keefe (they were married in April), agonizes about living with it. After nearly two decades of romanticizing her mistakes, finding resonance if not solace in the image of the bottle, she sings here about trying to right them.
Musically, the album is familiar stuff: a little blues, some soul, a couple of straightforward rockers and a few ballads. Raitt, 41, has a warm, natural voice, sexy but wise — a little gritty on the blues numbers, always wholly devoted to the needs of her songs. It's the sort of voice that's more moving than impressive, that can make a lyric cut like conversation. Luck of the Draw, coproduced with Don Was (who produced Nick of Time), frames her with a crisp backbeat and a minimum of fuss.
Her dilemmas here are as common as rain, and as vexing: the dwindling of passion, the difficulties of faith, the burdens of holding a family together. The album begins with a friendship itching to burst into something more; it ends with a single mother's frustration at her daughter, her ex-husband and herself. In between, there's all manner of reflection and love talk, from the sexual healing of "Slow Ride" to the anguished resignation of Mike Reid and A. Shamblin's "I Can't Make You Love Me," in which she resolves, "I'll close my eyes, then I won't see / The love you don't feel when you're holding me / Morning will come and I'll do what's right / Just give me till then to give up this fight / And I will give up this fight." Over swelling piano chords, she sings this last line with a mixture of determination and false bravado. It is in such freighted moments, understated but rich, that Luck of the Draw lets its modest charms ring out.
Tom Petty, 40, goes after bigger mythological fish on Into the Great Wide Open, his 10th album. Since moving to Los Angeles from Gainesville, Fla., an 1974, Petty has been a prickly customer, a wiry little man with a wiry, nasal voice and an outsider's cynicism that seemed more knowing than he was. Petty can't write a song without making it an epic. His characters are instant archetypes, his stories parables — all portent with little direction. Before he was much more than an unknown posing in a bullet belt on the cover of his first album, he had a coiled guitar line and character writ big enough to walk it. "She was an American girl," he sang, chalking up an archetype before he'd finished his first line, "Raised on promises." For much of his career, his images have been too big for his terse songs. But on his 1989 solo album, Full Moon Fever, he let his brightly strummed guitars float up with his images, giving them the resonance they needed, and finally found a square hole for his square peg.
Into the Great Wide Open, recorded with the Heartbreakers, follows the same path — maybe a little too closely, but no matter: the cleanly organic tunes seem to invent themselves anew each time out. Petty's best songs, often unresolved strings of images and metaphors, are his most open-ended. The title song, about an Everyboy who comes to Hollywood and becomes a rock star (ahem), slips away in the middle of the story, and "Learning to Fly" ventures "Some say life will beat down / Break your heart, steal your crown." Hmm — any arguments? Under the big sky in which Petty spends so much of his time, he recasts L.A. as the Old West, a place where metaphors walk tall. Into the Great Wide Open is cryptically pessimistic here, cryptically redemptive there. It ends with "Built to Last," a wide-eyed declaration of faith that love will see him through. But content aside, the album's pleasures lie in Petty's love of myth for myth's sake, and the big, open frame he gives this passion.
Elvis Costello's Mighty Like a Rose, his 13th album, is a more intriguing mess. Where Petty's images ring like spare koans, silently saying not much, Costello sputters meaning in all directions. Grandly orchestrated, Mighty Like a Rose is overstuffed — soft all over, puffy where it ought to be lean. The music has the highbrow coquettishness of Abbey Road, but with none of the easy pleasures. In the last decade, Costello, 36, has become a tinhorn Madonna, changing names and identities every few years (he even briefly resorted to his real name, Declan MacManus) without making even the faithful care about the changes. At heart, his music always argued against this sort of affectation, even as he laid it on.
When he gets down to cases, though, Costello isolates human flaws as cruelly and surgically as any writer in pop music. "He selects the plainest face from a row of spiteful girls," he sings, "elegant insulted women, a flaw of cultured pearls." Egged on by the plumpish arrangements, he is both self-pitying and acerbic, peeling the skin off the casual harm men and women do each other. By the end of the album, he's shed enough of his affectations to be openly mawkish. In "Broken," a funereal hymn written by his wife, Cait O'Riordan, he vows, "If you leave me, then I am broken / And if I'm broken, then only death remains." In a career spent skewering such sentimental illusions, Costello has never spoken as directly except in contempt. Maybe this is affectation as well, but he wears it at some personal risk, and when he finally sings, "Well you can laugh at this sentimental story," the tears in his beer ring true.
Richard Thompson, who has been something of a cult figure for 21 of his 42 years, tells the plain, earthy stories Petty and Costello overshoot. As a member of Fairport Convention, he helped spur the British folk revival of the late '60s and early '70s. His 1982 Shoot Out the Lights album, recorded with Linda, then his wife, is probably the most cutting breakup album this side of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. On the new Rumor and Sigh, his ninth solo album, his songs feel adrift in time; rooted in Scottish reels and Celtic folk forms, they might be new inventions or folk wisdoms as deeply embedded in our pasts as "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" or "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor." The best ones play both sides, letting corn fall where it may. On "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a doomed motorcycle boy tells his flame, "Now I'm 21 years, I might make 22 / And I don't mind dying, but for the love of you." He is a myth waiting to happen. But Thompson also twists his fables. The most buoyant pop song on the album, innocuously titled "Read About Love," unreels as a suggestion of date rape, narrated by a young man too confused to understand what he's done, and why his date is in tears. After all, he only followed what he'd read about love.
Marshall Crenshaw also plays loose with classic pop forms on his puckish Life's Too Short, which dwells on the styles of his youth without wholly giving in to them. Crenshaw played John Lennon in Beatlemania and Buddy Holly in La Bamba. Both men put their stamp on his music, but Crenshaw, 37, is too old and too wise to believe in the easy promises of adolescent pop songs. "Now, you can't always get what you want," he sings as the album opens. This is rock boilerplate, simple classicism, but he turns the reference on its ear: "No, you can't always get what you need." For the rest of the album, he butts the intricacies of adult love against the simplicity of jangly pop songs. Crenshaw makes it all look easy. Irresistible hooks dance by like they're nothing special, and everyday romantic conceits, lifted from a thousand and one old 45s, say a lot more than they let on.
Besides the McCartney album, there are no real breakthroughs in this bunch — just smart, artful rock and roll. Never burdened nor blessed with genius or cultural significance, these second-generation rockers take inspiration where they can find it and refine it with good craft. All look back past rock's golden age for guidance to performers who never sold themselves on their adolescent privilege and never had to mourn its passage. Having reached an age that values humility over precocious genius, they've all hit their stride making music by which people can sustain their lives, not define them.