10 of the Most Unlikely Comebacks in Music

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It’s the stuff of lazy music journalistic cliché to catalog Sinéad O’Connor’s eccentricities — the thing is that no matter how many religions she professes adherence to or pictures of the pope she tears up, she remains one of music’s most singular voices and talents. Still, having said that, it’s also fair to say that not many people were expecting her new album How About I Be Me and You Be You? to be as good as it is (from what little we’ve heard, anyway). Given that O’Connor’s personal life has overshadowed her music for too long, we’re hoping that this album will refocus the public’s attention on her work. Either way, this record is the latest resurgence of a career that’s been marked by unlikely comebacks — so to celebrate, here’s a selection of some other unlikely musical renaissances.

Sinéad O’Connor

Given that Flavorpill grew up with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” we’re chuffed to hear O’Connor sounding so good again. Crazy video, too, eh?

Brian Wilson

Poor Brian. The story of the slow mental breakdown of the Beach Boys’ resident genius has been well-documented — drugs, mental illness, a “controversial” therapist who ended up ruling every aspect of his life — and the fact that he was able to return from the dark place he inhabited during the 1980s is a cause for ongoing celebration. These days, Wilson looks somewhat fragile, but he’s functional and productive, and his genius blazes as brightly as ever.

Roky Erickson

Of course, Wilson isn’t the only musician who’s endured a long struggle with mental illness. Psych pioneer and 13th Floor Elevators founder Roky Erickson’s story is particularly harrowing — he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1968, and after being arrested for marijuana possession a year later (he had one measly joint on him), he was committed to a mental hospital where he remained until 1972, being subjected to ECT and thorazine treatments. He emerged in a terrible state, and by the early 1980s he was stealing people’s mail and claiming a Martian had possessed his body. After two lost decades, things finally took a turn for the better when he was taken in by his younger brother and placed on medication in the early 2000s, a time that coincided with a renewed interest in his music from a new generation of fans. These days, he’s a productive musician once again, making for a happy(ish) end to a pretty awful story.

Betty Davis

Quite why ex-wife of Miles Davis and terrifyingly awesome R&B diva Betty Davis’s fourth album Is It Love or Is It Desire? got shelved in the mid-1970s has never been entirely clear. Sadly, it led to her retirement from the world of music, an absence that lasted until the record was finally reissued in 2007. While the resultant resurgence of interest in her work didn’t result in any shows, it did create a whole new audience for her records, and Is It Love or Is It Desire? is definitely worth hearing. Our favorite Betty Davis moment, however, will always be the intro to S&M grinder “He Was a Big Freak,” which we’ve embedded above. “He was a biiiiiiiiiiiiig freak!” Davis howls, before explaining why as the bass drops into a filthy-sounding groove: “I used to beat him with a turquoise chain.” Not just any old chain, you’ll note. A turquoise chain.

Gil Scott-Heron

Considering what a sorry state Gil Scott-Heron was in toward the end of his life, the fact that I’m New Here got made is basically nothing short of miraculous. That it was such a great album only makes it all the sadder that it’s the last thing we’ll ever hear from a lost talent — but still, it’s a worthy testament to one of music’s most belated and welcome comebacks.

Rodriguez

There are few less likely comebacks than one that involves being plucked from a construction site one day due to the fact that a CD reissue of a record you made 30 years ago has unexpectedly gone platinum in South Africa. So it was for Sixto Rodriguez, who basically gave up on music in the early ’70s, disheartened by the lack of commercial success for his debut album Cold Fact and its follow-up Coming From Reality. Curiously, however, they proved to be sleeper hits outside the US — Australia and South Africa, in particular, proved fertile markets for both records, and Rodriguez was eventually coaxed out of retirement in 1979 for an Australian tour. He disappeared again afterward, until his daughter discovered in the late 1990s that he had a huge fan base in South Africa — his albums had been reissued on CD in 1991 without his knowledge, and were selling like crazy. Another comeback followed, and the 2000s brought him unexpected and belated success.

Paul Simon

And actually, there’s a bit of a South African theme here, for some reason. It’s fair to say that if you sat down in the mid-1980s to put together a list of “Artists ripe for a career reinvention catalyzed by South African mbaqanga music,” Paul Simon wouldn’t exactly have waltzed into the #1 spot. But his great musical leap forward with Graceland, a record inspired by a tape a friend had given him of South African group Boyoyo Boys, would reinvigorate Simon’s career and win him a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1987, as well as making him an unlikely standard-bearer for the then nascent world music genre.

Leonard Cohen

Circa the late 1990s, Leonard Cohen was living in seclusion at a monastery on top of a mountain near Los Angeles, going by the name “Jikan,” and showing no inclination to ever record music again. Fifteen years later, he’s just released a new album — his third since 2001, all of which have been fantastic — spent the last few years touring the world, and (re-)assumed his rightful place as a kind of erudite elder statesman of rock. Curiously enough, this most welcome of comebacks was catalyzed by adversity, namely a messy court case that centered on his allegedly getting diddled to the tune of $5 million by his former accountant while he was up the mountain.

Johnny Cash

Cash’s American Recordings period introduced him to a whole new audience, and given the commercial success of his last decade, it’s easy to forget that he was pretty much washed up during the 1980s — he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame at the start of that decade, but the induction just seemed to confirm the idea that his best days were behind him. His records didn’t sell, he became addicted to prescription painkillers after being injured by an ostrich (honestly), and his relationship with his record company had gotten so bad that he recorded a song called “Chicken in Black” in an attempt to extricate himself from his contract. And then Rick Rubin called, and everything changed.

The vinyl record

The record industry is dying, the RIAA are throwing tantrums and hauling down music blogs willy-nilly… and yet the humble LP is selling better than it has in years. Who’d have thought it, eh?