The 10 types of comeback singles: Midnight Oil, Shania Twain, LL Cool J and more

Who navigated the perils of a comeback, and who lost all the goodwill they’d built up?

Midnight Oil have released their first song in two decades – the jubilant ‘Gadigal Land’ – and you know what? It’s pretty great. It sounds very like late-period Oils, features contributions from Dan Sultan, Joel Davison, Kaleena Briggs and Bunna Lawrie.

And because it’s been released as part of a fundraising effort for the Makarrata Project, they’ve sidestepped many of the pitfalls of releasing a new song after almost two decades out of the studio – most notably, people going, “So why is this happening at all?”

And that’s no small achievement, because comebacks are a risky proposition at the best of times. In fact, there are broadly 10 different types of comebacks, and the Oils have impressively given us a solid Type 5 because… what? You don’t know the different kinds of comeback singles? Why, allow me to explain!

Type 10. The ‘insult to injury’ comeback

Jennifer Lopez, ‘Louboutins’ (2009)

In what is inarguably the most 2009 title a song could have mere months after the Sex And The City movie, this was meant to mark J-Lo’s return to music after following the flop of 2007’s ‘Brave’.

The song was a weird choice for a comeback, since it’s barely even a song, and that it was already a Brandy Norwood cast-off gives some indication of where Jenny from the Block was in the pecking order at this point. That the song was cursed was proved when Lopez launched it with a live performance at the American Music Awards, in which she misjudged her landing and fell over on stage after doing an admittedly tricky walking-up-a-staircase-made-of-men move.

She recovered brilliantly, but her career didn’t: the single didn’t chart, Epic Records let her go, and it took a stint as The Nice Judge on American Idol to return her to the hearts of the public.

Type 9. The ‘contents not as advertised’ comeback

Kiss, ‘Psycho Circus’ (1998)

Kiss have always been more brand than band, and the decision to go back to the classic lineup, makeup and costumes at the close of the century was less to do with a genuine desire to recapture the magic and everything to do with overcoming years of diminishing returns by reminding people of the era when they still liked Kiss.

And the single could have been a glorious return to the band’s ‘Destroyer’-era cheesy hooks and over the top theatrics. But instead, they went with a chugging chunk of nothing, as per most of the band’s post-1980 output.

And while Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley seem happy enough, the video shows the level of already-over-it displayed by returning original guitarist and drummer, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss – not unreasonably, since neither actually played on what was billed as their “comeback” single. It went about as well as you’d expect.

Type 8. The ‘false dawn’ comeback

Pixies, ‘Bagboy’ (2013)

Look, I will go to my grave declaring that ‘Bagboy’ is a goddamn stormer of a comeback single.

Frank Black’s decision to resurrect his Black Francis moniker and stop fighting his Pixies-structure instincts had already made for a great solo album (the little-heard ‘Bluefinger’), and hearing him once again flanked by Joey Santiago’s scribbling guitar lines was a truly wonderful thing. At first listen, the backing vocals sound exactly like their much-missed bassist Kim Deal, although they’re actually by the Bennies’ Jeremy Dubs.

It turned out that ‘Bagboy’ was a bit of nostalgic sleight of hand, though. The single’s parent album ‘Indie Cindy’ and everything that followed transformed the band from “untouchable mythic indie icons with a flawless catalogue” to “decent if unspectacular middle-aged band making OK music with most of the original members”.

Type 7. The ‘perfect for a biopic except…’ comeback

Shania Twain, ‘Life’s About To Get Good’ (2017)

You can absolutely see the way this would work in the Shania biopic. At the end of Act 2 the country-pop superstar finds her voice disappearing along with her health and energy, and makes the twin discoveries that she’s suffering from Lyme Disease and that her husband has been cheating on her, thus ending the superstar marriage of Twain and producer/songwriter Robert “Mutt” Lange. Insert your own “Mutt, you dog” joke here.

Five years of musical silence and painful recovery followed before the release of this statement of intent, a song of resilience and hard-won wisdom and acres of AutoTune. Narratively, it should have been a triumphant return to the top of the charts, instead of a middling success heralding the largely lukewarm reception its parent album ‘Now’ would receive. But hey, we can always tweak that in the script.

Incidentally, the title should obviously be Never The Twain (or Twain In Vain). You’re welcome, screenwriters.

Type 6. The ‘Hail Mary’ comeback

Johnny Cash, ‘Hurt’ (2003)

Had Rick Rubin not convinced Cash to strip his sound down and wrap his world-weary voice around four albums worth of American classics and inspired contemporary covers (Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat’, Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’, Bonnie Prince Billy’s ‘I See A Darkness’), then there would be a very good chance the his obituary would have been centred around his novelty single ‘The Chicken In Black’ rather than his masterful ownership of the Nine Inch Nails classic, ‘Hurt’.

Thankfully, the four American albums, especially ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ (from which this comes, and which was released just before Cash’s death) ensured that he ended his career on a high note, though that feels like the wrong way to describe his rumbling bass-baritone.

Type 5. The ‘it’s like you never left’ comeback

The Go-Betweens, ‘Going Blind’ (2000)

The end of the legendary Brisbanites after 1988’s ‘16 Lovers Lane’ had been acrimonious and difficult, including the end of two romantic relationships, but the founding duo of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan remained on good terms while they pursued solo careers for a decade.

After doing some shows together at the urging of Lloyd Cole, they formed a ‘new’ Go-Betweens and then did an album, ‘The Friends Of Rachel Worth’, without any of their old bandmates, but with all of Quasi and Sleater-Kinney instead. And what a perfect record it remains, as are the two albums which followed before McLennan unexpectedly passed away in 2006.

What’s most remarkable, though, is just how much it sounds like the Go-Betweens. It could have come out in 1990 and honestly, no-one would have blinked.

Type 4. The ‘going out in style’ comeback

David Bowie, ‘Lazarus’ (2015)

Bowie’s ’90s and ’00s output was pretty strong – especially compared to his mid-80s nadir – but a near-fatal heart attack in 2004 during his tour for the perfectly OK ‘Reality’ ended his concert career. Thereafter, there was little more than the odd soundtrack song or guest spot as he entered a decade-long break from albums before the surprise announcement of ‘The Next Day’ in 2013 and then, heartbreakingly, the genius ‘Blackstar’ released two days before his death from cancer on January 10, 2016.

This single was easily the most powerful thing he’d done in decades. And that it was written and performed while his disease was in remission made it clear Bowie had written it with the knowledge that time was running out. Trust Bowie to write his own epitaph.

Type 3. The ‘successful recasting’ comeback

AC/DC, ‘Hells Bells’ (1980)

Replacing a singer is seldom worth it, as bands as diverse as INXS, Blind Melon and Mötley Crüe can tell you. But when that singer is also the main songwriter and an incandescent billion-watt floodlight of charisma, then getting some cap-wearing English bloke in from a third-rate rock band doesn’t seem like the smartest deal.

And yet AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ is an undeniable masterpiece, in part because Brian Johnson can’t remotely hold a candle to Bon Scott and so he doesn’t try. Exhibit A: the elegiac-yet-rockin’ ‘Hells Bells’. Sure, they never did another album that was better than OK, but this set the impossible standard by which every post-frontman band would suffer in comparison.

Type 2. The ‘business as usual’ comeback

New Order, ‘Crystal’ (1998)

New Order are often hailed as innovators, but they’re seldom given credit for inventing the now-ubiquitous status of ‘indefinite hiatus’ after the collapse of Factory Records and the burnout from making 1993’s ‘Republic’. All members embarked on solo careers and the different camps spent almost five years out of contact before their manager all but threatened them into a meeting.

That meeting went surprisingly well, though. And it led to a new record deal with London Records, a new album in ‘Get Ready’, and a new member with Phil Cunningham to sub for keyboardist Gillian Gilbert.

And ‘Crystal’ was a stormer of a return. The video also had an interesting legacy since it replaced the band with a bunch of young, attractive actors called, according to the drum kit, The Killers – which particularly inspired one young fan watching out in Utah…

Type 1. The definitive comeback

LL Cool J, ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ (1990)

In 1989, LL Cool J’s career was on the slide. Sure, he was still selling strongly but early fans of his grittier, Rick Rubin-produced stuff didn’t like his increasingly commercial and brand-heavy albums. They were flocking to the newer gangsta rap artists, while pop audiences weren’t quite embracing hip-hop the way they would the following decade.

It looked like he was going to follow what was shaping up to be the ’80s rap star template set by Run DMC: early acclaim, breakthrough, critical disappointment, loss of audience and decline into irrelevance.

So what was the pivotal moment that stopped LL Cool J joining his contemporary MC Hammer? A fierce little ditty called ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’. It’s the ultimate comeback, made all the better by the fact that the very first line is “don’t call it a comeback”. Goddamn you, LL. This is how it’s done.

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