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January: A Month in Comebacks

Comebacks: certainly one of the most divisive moves an act can make in their career. Often synonymous with short-lived capitalisation and lacklustre results, the minority of well thought out returns come from the unlikeliest of sources.

Beyonce

In 2012, electronica pioneers Orbital released their first album in eight years. Not only did it reassert their relevancy in the age of Skrillex-esque ‘brostep’, it essentially ran circles around their modern-day contemporaries. Still, it didn’t stop the likes of The Cure and New Order from pedalling the same tired setlist around festivals worldwide.

It’s with these contrasting takes that we enter 2013, and a month generally considered to be a slow release period. Rather uncharacteristically though, January has seen an impressive and diverse amount of comebacks, each taking slightly different approaches.

Justin Timberlake was among the first on the scene with a self-serving video teaser, in which the whispered final remark “I’m ready” was both cringe-inducing and buzz-generating in equal measure. The Timberland-produced new single Suit & Tie is solid enough – taking the seductive vibe of Señorita and giving it a new-age expensive sheen – but the promotion didn’t stop there. Even after premiering the track, JT felt it necessary to hide his album’s release date within a split-second image in a lavish lyric video.

As such, his return breathes with a certain over-egged marketing strategy that only a boardroom of major-label hotshots can conceive. When mystery is so forced upon the public, so cheapened by pomp, it becomes difficult to give Justin the welcome he feels entitled to receive. After all, we didn’t miss him that much.

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Much more successful are the understated comebacks that use ambiguity as a means to promote. So it goes with long-time icon David Bowie, who subtly dropped his first new material in ten years on his birthday with Where Are We Now?, a single that proved as fascinating as his landmark work.

Then there’s the album artwork: the original cover of his now-classic 1977 album Heroes obscured by a white box containing the new title The Next Day. It may symbolise “forgetting or obliterating the past” (as designer Jonathon Barnbrook states), but it’s also an oversimplified retort to high-concept comebacks such as Timberlake’s.

Of course, critics expected JT to be in good company after the long-awaited reformation of Destiny’s Child promised to be equally elaborate. However, their comeback track Nuclear doesn’t quite meet the solo crooner’s level of extravagance. Indeed it may not echo the heights of tracks such as Say My Name, but it’s a minimal yet effective revival of the nineties R&B they were instrumental in pioneering.

At a time where critically recognised acts such as AlunaGeorge and Jessie Ware are making the genre en vogue again, Beyoncé and co. are playing it smart. However, with only a compilation album planned for release as opposed to entirely new material, the suspicious among us may see this as a nod to monetary motives.

Their timing is also coincidentally close to the return of new mother Beyoncé, who found herself caught in a PR fiasco when the authenticity of her supposed live performance at President Obama’s Inauguration was thrown into question. GQ were the first to declare “Beyoncé-gate”, and the singer has since admitted to miming. Regardless, such a high-profile comeback as this (on top of her imminent Superbowl appearance) is testament to one of this generation’s most gifted performers at the pinnacle of her influence. In the words of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper: “It’s Beyoncé’s world, and we’re just living in it.”

Then there are the acts that still manage to gain substantial attention without major label backing. For acclaimed electronica duo The Knife, such attention surfaced simply as a result of their long-felt absence, created by seminal albums such as 2006’s Silent Shout. As a band who are renowned for their lack of media cooperation (their promotional photos almost always feature the duo wearing masks), this is an act who clearly have something new to say, as their upcoming near 100-minute album Shaking The Habitual attests.

One of the most surprising announcements to come out of January was the reformation of Death Cab for Cutie side-project The Postal Service. Although the news was delivered modestly – a mere image on a website – theirs draws the most parallels to the comebacks seen in 2012, with plans for only festival dates and small tours. This year will also commemorate the tenth anniversary of their sole album Give Up, placing them in alignment with other one-off reformations like The Cure.

With this month’s considerable run of disappointing records – we’re looking at you, Biffy Clyro – the New Year has been duly rescued by some of music’s most reliable acts. With the exception of the token undesirable comeback (Dido, anyone?), never before have reformations been so promising, so varied, and – most importantly – so unforced as these.

This piece was published in print and online for Concrete.

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