In 2016 we were treated to two marvellous swan songs. In January, David Bowie released his parting album ‘Blackstar’ two days before he died at the age of 69 – coded with hints about his then-unknown battle with cancer. 10 months later, Leonard Cohen did something similar. With his life coming to an end, ‘You Want It Darker’ was a breathtaking and sobering farewell from one of the filthiest lyricists ever, an album that grappled with mortality and the great unknown. Just two weeks after its release, Cohen passed away.
Both were perfect goodbyes to artists who changed the game on a commercial level (Bowie) or as a cult hero (Cohen), but Cohen’s work may not be done just yet. Last week, his son Adam shared a brand new song, the brooding and brief ‘The Goal’, and announced that there’s more to come: a whole new album, ‘Thanks For The Dance’, is due out later this year, and will be the first posthumous record featuring Cohen’s work.
A lucrative industry
Music from beyond the grave is never an easy prospect, nor is it a new one. It is one of the most lucrative tricks for the music industry, with plenty of boxsets and beyond-the-grave releases rushed out to fill your Dad’s stocking this Christmas. The opportunity for estates to repackage and resell both existing music and those hidden sessions is quite simply endless.
Michael Jackson and Elvis, for example, have had several albums each reach the top of the UK Album Charts since their deaths, often using unfinished vocal takes and new instrumentation to flesh out what were merely doodles and leftovers. The plundering of archive material from the world’s biggest stars will never stop – fans are too eager to hear more from their favourite, while the label reap rewards that will likely never diminish.
Sifting through the scraps
The circumstance of how posthumous albums are released is the tricky part. Taping together half-baked ideas to sustain interest in an artist is not just crass and questionable, but usually just completely rubbish. Amy Winehouse’s ‘Lioness’, released six months after her death in July 2011, was a mish-mash of decade-old covers and only two original songs that were featured were being poised to be released officially by Winehouse before her death.
Likewise, Tupac Shakur has had his name put to at least seven albums since his death in 1996, none of which offer a good-enough insight into his process and no new nuggets are gleamed.
Getting it right
Cohen’s first posthumous album, ‘Thanks For The Dance’ is different prospect, however. The sketches of these songs were already there, with Cohen asking his son Adam (producer of ‘You Want It Darker’) to bring to completion once he had died. Seven months following his death, Adam started piecing together the album, recruiting members of The National and Arcade Fire, with various orchestras and choirs contributing towards the final vision: a posthumous album that was wanted and planned by the artist, they’re just not around to finish it.
Where possible, it’s perhaps the perfect way to do approach the daunting task. With ‘Thanks For The Dance’, there’s a familiar hand to help guide the release through its completion, and the time elapsed means that there’s no fatigue or a lingering sense of a cash-grab – this is how the artist wanted their remaining work to be presented.
An ethical dilemma
It’s just one of the new wave of posthumous albums that recognise the ethical side to these contentious releases. Earlier this year, the family of the late EDM superstar Avicii released ‘Tim’, a completed version of songs that were set to be on his next album, with previous collaborators offering their input. All of the proceeds from that album went towards the Tim Bergling Foundation, which is committed to raise awareness of mental health issues, as well as climate change and nature conservation.
Similarly, both of Prince’s posthumous releases so far align with the singer’s scepticism of the music industry. ‘Piano and a Microphone’ reimagine his biggest hits in intimate settings, while ‘Originals’ feature demo versions of some of the hits he penned for others, such as The Bangles’ ‘Manic Monday’ and The Family’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. These aren’t necessarily completely illuminating, but provide an interesting wrinkle into the Purple One’s recording process, without outing songs that were not quite ready for public consumption. As far as we can tell, the infamous Vault has not been completely plundered just yet.
Suspicious, savvy consumers
Fans are getting more wary of cash-grabs and estates getting smarter about how to sustain a legacy without cheapening it at the same time. Our appetite for endless content from our favourite artists – dead or alive – doesn’t appear to be shortening, but at least now there’s at least some class about it all.