A lot of things have to go right to become a rock star. Some mixture of timing and talent and luck that’s about as likely as this post getting a million views. But to become a rock star with longevity? To stay socially relevant and creatively inspired and physically capable of touring well into middle age? That’s just a magic trick.
As I slide into my mid-40s like an obese cat dragging itself across the linoleum, I find myself interested in how my fellow Gen Xers are holding up. Several have released albums this year, which I’ve listened to with the ear of a doctor, searching for any slowed reflexes, emerging arrhythmias, or unhealthy anxieties about getting older.
The doctor is in!
Patient #1: Eddie Vedder
Of the ’90s rock poster boys, Eddie Vedder always seemed like the one who was built for the long haul. It’s easy to read too much into Pearl Jam’s decision to stop making videos and battle Ticketmaster at the height of its fame, but in retrospect, they were the actions of young men looking at the big picture. Earthling keeps that narrative intact, with the 57-year-old leapfrogging between sounds with more energy than you might expect, and a healthy amount of humility. The jangly “Long Way” is a self-aware Tom Petty rip-off, with actual Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on keys. The ballad “Mrs. Mills” is a self-aware Paul McCartney ripoff that pays homage to the British music hall pianist who hit it big in the early ’60s alongside her label-mates The Beatles. And “Try” gives Pearl Jam’s garage-punk roots a poppier, grown-up makeover, its lyrics about pure, earnest effort sexier than any pick-up line could ever be.
Diagnosis: Some slight wear and tear in your vocal cords and lyric sheets – but it really works for you Eddie. Your passion has always been evident, but in the old days it could cross over into non-sensical mutter-growling. I like this older, calmer you. By being open about your influences and not trend-chasing, you’ve ironically made the freshest-sounding Pearl Jam-related project in over a decade!
Treatment: Keep being true to yourself, and you will keep doing right by your music.
Patient #2: Red Hot Chili Peppers
“My life is a rope swing, always headin’ back to where I came,” sings Anthony Kiedis on his band’s first album in six years. It’s an apt metaphor, because with Unlimited Love, Red Hot Chili Peppers are trying to pull the same trick they did with 1999’s Californication – welcome guitarist/vocalist/aesthetic compass John Frusciante back in the fold to help draw out the beauty in their sound. And while this record lacks the sweeping hooks and fragile gravitas of its older cousin, it’s a worthy addition to their catalog. Frusciante, Flea and Chad Smith still vibe beautifully together, turning spacious ballads like “Let ‘Em Cry” into melodic showcases and putting just enough polish on their trademark funk vamps so they feel older and wiser. The X factor, as usual, is the 59-year-old Kiedis, who continues to think lines just need to rhyme and the words themselves are merely incidental: “The seventies were such a win / Singing the Led Zeppelin / Lizzy lookin’ mighty thin / The Thompsons had another twin,” he raps in the abysmal “Poster Child.” But just as you’re ready to write him off, he’ll throw himself into a line like “It’s been a long time since I made a new friend,” and you’ll be reminded about how, despite all the blood and sex, this band has never skimped on the sugar and magic.
Diagnosis: Your age is showing, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Your reflexes are duller, and your energy flags a bit over 17 tracks. But you seem happy, and in a comfortable groove, letting the spark of old chemistry propel you forward. As long as you don’t expect to top the charts or attract a bunch of new fans, you’ve got a fulfilling third act of your career ahead of you.
Treatment: Icy Hot to soothe those forced rhyme schemes. Stay out of the sun, or else you might write songs with “California” in the title again. And keep spending time together!
Patient #3: The Smile
It wasn’t always clear how Radiohead would handle aging. It’s healthy to have a sense of one’s own mortality, but these guys have always been obsessed with the pointlessness of it all. “Cracked eggs / Dead birds / Scream as they fight for life,” sang a 26-year-old Thom Yorke on the final track of the disillusioned masterpiece The Bends. 27 years later, this side project from Yorke, guitarist Jonny Greenwood and drummer Tom Skinner has an outlook that’s just as bleak, but it’s informed by something different. A Light for Attracting Attention delivers what we’d hope from a late Radiohead record – Yorke’s voice beckoning like an alien siren, post-punk grooves elevated by odd time signatures, waves of melody soothing us out of nowhere like a radio broadcast from a happier time. But there are some elements that are purely The Smile, too – most prominently Skinner’s drum solo that kicks off “The Opposite,” which sounds like the beginning of a sweaty funk workout from The Meters and absolutely made me check to see if Apple Music was on shuffle. For an album that’s not interested in being catchy, this rhythmic pulse from a live drummer is critical, a still-beating umbilical cord that helps us understand there can be comfort in nihilism. “When we realize we are broke and nothing mends / We can drop under the surface,” the 53-year-old Yorke observes on the closing “Skrting On the Surface.” It’s not an argument for suicide, but acceptance. The older we get, the thinner the ice. What’s wrong with picking out our wetsuit?
Diagnosis: Thom. Jonny. You’re in exceptional shape for your age. You made a whole album about the dehumanizing impact of technology, but you’re making me wonder if you were the robots all along. How else can you explain the fact that you’re still able to make music that goes to such beautiful, lonely places, while somehow making us feel less alone?
Treatment: If you truly are carbon-based, just stick to your current diet and exercise plan, which I assume is tea, plant-based energy bars and staring out rain-spattered windows.
Patient #4: Jack White
When you get famous for leading a band that checks many of the traditionally “cool” boxes of electric guitar-based music – loud, unpolished, defiant but also romantic, branded with signature colors – it can be tough to begin the next phase of your career. Especially if you’re as much of a tech nerd as Jack White, who is now as much of an advocate for vinyl pressing plants as he is a rock star. His fourth solo LP, Fear of the Dawn, has the same upsides and weaknesses of previous efforts – richer-sounding White Stripes-ish riffs coupled with interesting production wrinkles that all sound good, but feel a bit aimless without the steady, intangible pulse of Meg White’s drums. My favorite parts are the most experimental, like “Hi-De-Ho,” a melodramatic blues-rap freakout that pairs White’s simple riff with verses from Q-Tip and a prominent Cab Calloway sample. I also love the concept – an image-obsessed 45-year-old rocker petrified of the sunrise, another day further away from his glory days. “Eosophobia” uses the scientific term for this fear over delightfully syncopated drum-and-guitar interplay that reinvents the White Stripes formula into something weirdly wonderful. Maybe this is the transition record that White needed to make before he could finally throw open the curtains and move on.
Diagnosis: Jack, I’m proud of the self-awareness you’re showing here, translating your fear of aging into art. But you need to trust those instincts even more. You are showing signs of early-stage carpal tunnel, retreading those familiar punk-blues riffs over and over. Embrace your mid-life shift into an obscure LP/vintage instrument-hoarding weirdo and see what happens! Excited for your next check-up.
Treatment: Rest those old guitar-shredding muscles – they’re tired!