FEATURE: Against Their Will: The Divisive Nature of the Posthumous Album




Against Their Will


IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for the posthumous Jeff Buckley album, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (1998)/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

The Divisive Nature of the Posthumous Album


IT may sound a bit ghoulish…


 PHOTO CREDIT: @alvaroserrano/Unsplash

and weird to raise the topic of death in a music piece, but there is something to be said for the success artists can gain after they depart us! The subject is not reserved to albums released after a musician has died. We all know how some artists gain acclaim after their deaths because, for some reason, people do not seem to get what they are all about when they are alive. It is odd to think how, sadly, some bands/artists are never given the success and love their music demands when they are alive and, years later, people latch onto them. There is, as I will explore, albums released after an artist has died that was not discovered in their lifetime or they were making and never got to finish. Whether a completed and recognised studio album gains fresh traction posthumously or an unreleased record is brought out and gathers a fresh wave of respect for that artist – I am interested learning why an artist can get new fans and see their music elevated after their deaths. When music loses a talent and we have to go through that awful realisation; naturally, sales of that artist’s albums go up and there is that burst of interest. It is understandable people would want to mark that musician and have an interest in them but, for some reason, that demand and rush tends to end fairly quickly and that is it.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Johnny Hallyday (who died last year) pictured in 2014 in Los Angeles/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Why do we have that sort of sympathetic attachment to an artist in the wake of their death and why do some albums gain huge sales figures that were not achieved during the natural life of the artist?! One reason why I bring up the ‘lure’ and importance of posthumous popularity is a story concerning Johnny Hallyday that talks about increased sales figures and a resurgence following his sad death last year:

Johnny Hallyday, the leather-trousered “French Elvis” who died last year, didn’t believe in resurrection. But from beyond the grave, the musician has managed to miraculously restore life to a dying record and CD industry.

With 780,177 copies on CD and vinyl sold since the album’s release last Friday, Hallyday, who died in December aged 74, is expected to have bigger first-week converted sales than Drake, whose Scorpion release was the biggest album in the US this year.

The Hallyday album’s vast sales on CD and vinyl are highly unusual at a time when sales of physical records are falling. Music insiders called it “the Johnny phenomenon”, saying the CD sales were a sign of Hallyday’s huge following in France. Fans apparently wanted to own a physical copy even though it was available on premium streaming services.

The album, a combination of rock, rockabilly and blues, was recorded last year in Los Angeles, months before Hallyday died of lung cancer. It went platinum within minutes of going on sale in France on 19 October and sold 630,000 units in the first three days”.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @art_ed/Unsplash

In the case of Hallyday; it seems like the posthumous release that sold big numbers has been met with positivity and it was a case of releasing material he planned to put out into the world. There is that argument, if an artist had only recorded a few tracks and they were not album-ready, then should they be released against their will? I remember having mixed emotions diving into Jeff Buckley’s 1998 posthumous release, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. There are some fantastic gems on that collection that hint at where Buckley was heading. A lot of the material was recorded in 1997, not long after he died. One wonders whether the ‘finished’ material on the album was what Buckley wanted to release eventually or whether he would have scrapped them and started again. Buckley was a perfectionist and one feels he might have kept a song or two and then recorded completely new stuff for his sophomore release. I will bring in the case of Prince and why a posthumous release is welcome and unearths something that reveals a new side to him but there is that argument as to whether it is ethical and moral for producers/family to collect these scraps and demos and put them into a posthumous album.

This article from The Guardian, written the year Amy Winehouse died (2011), talks about an album of her unreleased tracks that divided fans and the media:

“…Next week, a little over four months after the untimely death of the singer, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, will be released.

By necessity, it is a collection of early recordings, out-takes, and just two unfinished tracks from her planned third album. "She appears to have recorded almost nothing in the last two years of her life," noted Alexis Petridis, the Guardian's music critic, this week. Anyone who followed the tabloids over the last few years will be painfully aware of the reasons for that, but Remi hoped the album would be a fitting reminder of Winehouse's talent. "Going through her music was like going through a photo album," he says. "There was a lot of stuff that I had forgotten about, and that nobody else knew existed. When I shared that with her manager and her family, we thought maybe we should share this with the rest of the world".

I am a bit split when it comes to artists unexpectedly dying and what do you do with the material they never got around to releasing. Although one can assume some of the songs would have found their way onto a new album; you can never say what their plans were and if they actually want them into the world!


IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for the posthumous Amy Winehouse album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures (2011)/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

The article explores the seedier and more unpleasant side of posthumous releases and whether they are betraying an artist’s will:

There is, of course, a darker side to posthumous releases, where words such as "legacy" are bandied about and sales are guaranteed as long as there are enough voracious fans who can be relied on to will buy anything connected to their late idol. (In fairness to those behind Winehouse's album, a proportion of profits are to go to the foundation set up in her name). Tupac Shakur, the American rapper who was shot in 1996, has released more albums in death than he did in life, the richness of his music appearing more diluted with each one. Jimi Hendrix, who released just four albums before he died in 1970, has had his name on more than 50 posthumously, with most years seeing a new release of live recordings or a compilation, most recently in September.

Michael Jackson's posthumous album, Michael, was released last year, 18 months after his death, amid accusations from the singer's family that he wasn't even singing on some of the tracks. Quincy Jones, his former producer, told Us magazine. "It should have stayed in the vault. It seems everybody is trying to put everything out that they can with him. It's all to make money. He wouldn't have wanted it to come out this way." Another album, Immortal, has been released, and Howard Weitzman, who co-manages Jackson's estate, says more releases are planned. "It's a pretty vibrant estate in the sense that it continues to generate not just catalogue opportunities, but plenty of other ideas," he told Billboard in October”.

I can understand the resistance fans have when they see an artist they have followed and lost having control taken away. There is a lot more content and agreement when a posthumous album is a realised and complete work that, sadly, was completed just before an artist died. In some cases, there are albums they recorded and did not released – they are unearthed and taken from the archives and brought into the world. Many people worry about the morals of record labels that mine departed artists for all they are worth. Amy Winehouse is an artist whose legacy and music is being mined even more with a planned hologram tour and biopic. I like some of the tracks that were released after her death but there is nothing that matches the honesty and rawness of Frank and the brilliant Back to Black. Estates and labels are keen to bring every half-cut demo, scratchy outtake and B-side-primed song to the fans. Many might say that is giving people what they want and ensuring they can experience new music from their favourite artist after they have died. Others argue capital incentives are behind the decision and it is all about raking in money and being exploitative – taking advantage on people’s zeal to get fresh music from an artist that is no longer around. I am a bit hit-and-miss regarding posthumous albums but, even as a die-hard Jeff Buckley fan and a bit supporter of Amy Winehouse; I was glad posthumous albums were released because there are some fascinating and promising songs. You wonder what could have been and you gain an insight into what the artist was thinking/planning before they died.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @rawpixel/Unsplash

Posthumous releases are not new: ever since the 1950s; the likes of Buddy Holly have been the subjects of posthumous releases. Returning to the article I have quoted; there are some who feel like something gaudy and greedy lies behind those who bring unreleased material out when an artist dies:

"Reissue, repackage," was how Morrissey described the "sickening greed" of record companies on the Smiths track Paint a Vulgar Picture, and there is no doubt that a celebrity's earning power doesn't stop with their death. In Forbes magazine's recent list of the top-earning dead celebrities, Jackson was at the top for the second year running, earning $170m this year (£110m; the previous year, he earned $275, or £175m).

The man in second place – Elvis Presley – earned $55m (£35m) last year. If you want to see how we might treat deceased stars in future, look to the US company Authentic Brands, which bought the rights to Marilyn Monroe this year (they already market products under Bob Marley's name). CEO Jamie Salter told a Canadian newspaper that, thanks to digital technology, he expects Monroe to be starring in a new film "in the next couple of years".

I have stated how some posthumous albums are completed works that were not released in an artist’s lifetime for some reason or other. Maybe the timing was not right or the label wanted something else. Two cases where the public have been behind posthumous releases concern two artists we lost in 2016: David Bowie and Prince.


 IN THIS PHOTO: David Bowie captured whilst appearing in the film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)/PHOTO CREDIT: Steven Schapiro

David Bowie had a lot of material ready and held back. It is sad we lost Bowie to cancer but one feels he would have been behind re-releases and unreleased material coming through. It seems, every month, there is something ‘new’ from the departed innovator. Back in March; Consequence of Sound excitedly talked about planned released from the late star:

David Bowie is said to have prepared a number of records to be released posthumously. Among the releases to have surfaced in the two-plus years since his death: an EP of unreleased material called No Plan; an archival box set featuring the unreleased album The Gouster; reissues of the Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell to Earth soundtracks; the live album Cracked Actor (Live in Los Angeles 1974); a repressing of 1971’s Bowpromo; a second archival box set chronicling Bowie’s Berlin trilogy; and an early demo version of “Let’s Dance”.

There’s apparently plenty more still to unearth from Bowie’s vault, as the coming month will bring upwards of eight new records. Two reissues have already been announced for next month: Bowie’s 1981 compilation Changes to Bowie will go back into print on April 13th, followed on April 20th by a vinyl reissue of Aladdin Sane.

Now, comes word of a trio of Bowie records available for Record Store Day 2018 (April 21st). The allotment includes Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78) featuring recordings from Bowie’s “Isolar II tour” at London’s Earls Court on June 30th and July 1st, 1978; a 12-inch single that includes the first-full length version of “Let’s Dance”; and Bowie Now, a rare US only promotional-only LP from 1977, which is receiving its first-ever commercial release”.

Earlier this year; Piano & a Microphone 1983 was released and is a rare chance to hear Prince and his piano – a stripped and barenaked revelation that many have welcomed and celebrated. Again, like Bowie; this has been a welcomed and much-needed posthumous chapter from a legend of music. 

Prince, who to the shock of his many fans worldwide died two years ago, would have celebrated his 60th birthday this June.

Now, for all of 35 minutes, he is back, sitting at the piano and playing music, back in the early 1980s. Listening to the tracks, it is easy to imagine lounging in a comfortable chair, reading a book while Prince sings and tinkers on the piano. It sounds as if he were all by himself, very relaxed, raw and intimate.

Of course he is not playing in his living room, but in in a studio, where occasionally, sound engineer Don Batts gave the artist brief instructions during the recording, for instance to lower his voice.


IN THIS PHOTO: Prince/PHOTO CREDIT: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images  

Prince is said to have written more than 1,000 songs, many of them under pseudonyms and many of which have yet to be released.

Prince left no will, so legal issues had to be clarified before the release of Piano & A Microphone 1983. Prince's sister and five half brothers and sisters were declared the heirs to his estate and they have been careful with new releases. Two best-of compilations were released posthumously so far.

This newly released album is a true gem — intimate, playful and soulful songs by a musical genius who wasn't aware at that point that he'd one day become one of the world's top icons of pop”.

One of my quandaries regards that lack of control and whether an artist would consent. There was rankle a few months back when it was claimed a lot of Michael Jackson’s posthumous songs were actually not sung by him. There is still debate happening but many have heard some posthumously-released songs and say it is not Jackson singing. There are a few Jackson songs that never got released in his life but some others, one suspects, have been masquerading as Jackson-sung tunes. There is that problem with authenticity but another one revolves around quality. If a musician released faultless and brilliant records whilst alive; do these half-finished and flawed posthumous albums actually dent their legacy?! Some say the way of reaching new generations is to release these albums/tracks and, if there is music in the vaults; what is the sense of leaving them be and people being denied? It depends on whether you feel an artist’s music should be protected when they die and whether it is wrong to release new material without their consent. Some posthumous albums have proved rather interesting and popular. Other Voices is a release from The Doors that does not feature their leader, Jim Morrison. Morrison died in July 1971 and the ‘new’ Doors album was in the world some three months after. Nirvana’s famous unplugged session for MTV was brought out after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 and Johnny Cash’s American V: A Hundred Highways was intended to be released during his lifetime. That record is a fascinating thing and it is only the slightly untimely passing of Cash that denied the master the chance to see it released to the world.


 IN THIS IMAGE: The cover of Johnny Cash’s posthumous album, American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

There is also that subject of an artist dying suddenly and having bits of an album ready with the intention of adding to it. Prince, Michael Jackson; Jeff Buckley and Amy Winehouse all died without much warning and expectation and they wouldn’t have left directives and wills that stated how they wanted unreleased material to be treated. George Harrison died in 2001 and was working on Brainwashed (2002), his final album, before he died. He was determined to get it released before his death and it is a case of the artist knowing the material that they were working on before their death should be out there. The same is true of the Queen album, Made in Heaven (1995). Freddie Mercury died in 1991 and was determined to get as many songs and demos recorded before he went – the band worked with him and there was definite desire and consent from the Queen lead. Joy Division’s Closer (1980) and From a Basement on the Hill (Elliott Smith, 2004) are completed and full work that are cherished and exceptional – sad cases of the leads and creators dying (committing suicide in these two cases) before an official release could happen. I am a big fan of Aaliyah’s eponymous posthumous release of 2001 and, again, it is a case of an artist suddenly dying before the record could be complete – she died in a plane crash on the way back from filming the video for the album track, Rock the Boat.

Despite the lauded and revelatory posthumous releases; does it all come back to the unseemly and label-dictated cash-ins?! Are they the factors that stand out – rather than the music itself?! The late XXXTentacion was the subject of a piece in High Snobiety. They looked at the posthumous release and the ethics behind them. They reacted to XXXTentacion going to number-one with the single, SAD!

This year, late rapper XXXTentacion became the first artist to chart posthumously at number one since Biggie did back in 1997 with the release of “Mo Money Mo Problems,” joining an elite yet tragic group of hip-hop chart-toppers. Controversy aside, the success of “SAD!” is well deserved on artistic grounds, yet there’s something rather unsettling about the accompanying video, which sees X attend his own funeral.

Although the promo was both written and creative directed by XXXTentacion before his death, seeing the young star resurrected on film so soon after his real-life murder raises some ethical issues. Fans might argue that the “SAD!” video is a beautiful elegy to X’s legacy and while that’s true to a point, it’s hard not to see how the record company also had plenty to gain from capitalizing on the star’s posthumous success for financial gain too.

Either way, it’s important to note that XXXTentacion had full creative control over the “SAD!” promo and always intended to release it more or less in the form that we see today. But what will happen in five years time when unreleased songs hidden in the vaults suddenly come to light? How would X react if he knew that unfinished tracks he didn’t approve could potentially become part of his musical legacy?


 IN THIS PHOTO: Aaliyah (whose eponymous posthumous album was released after her death in 2001)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Is everything about maximising an artist’s appeal and commercialism following their death? A lot of labels want to keep them in the public eye and ensure they can eek money from their music. In a lot of cases, there is real passion that comes from posthumous release:

It’s not all about the sales though. Drake’s genuine admiration for the likes of Aaliyah and Michael Jackson is well-documented, transforming songs like “Enough Said” and “Don’t Matter To Me” into elegies that pay homage to the musical prowess of both artists in question. And while some fans might want record companies to leave the reputation of these deceased stars alone, we also shouldn’t assume that there’s nothing left of value in their unreleased back catalog.

After all, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” was released after Otis Redding died, cementing his status as a musical icon, and if songs were never released posthumously, then we wouldn’t have game-changers like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” or Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” either”.

The article raises a good point that I had not even considered: the weird ‘duets’ between a dead artist and a living recording star. I often wonder why it is allowed and whether it is a compromise between a new recording and releasing some rare offcut. Whatever the reason behind this rather odd combination; there have been some serious missteps:

Remember Duets: The Final Chapter? Released in 2005, eight years after The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered, this album was composed entirely of unlikely duets that even new fans questioned the authenticity of. Although it’s impossible to know what path Biggie’s career might have taken, it’s clear that the esteemed rapper would have never traded bars with someone like Nelly, and the inclusion of other deceased artists like Tupac, Big Pun and Bob Marley was an even more offensive affront to everyone involved. There’s a big difference between releasing completed tracks and constructing some bizarre Frankenstein-patchwork of sub-par material”.

I will round things off soon but I, like many, was stunned hearing the news of The Cranberries’ lead, Dolores O’Riordan, earlier this year. The band were recording material before she drowned – the coroner decided her death was an accident and not suicide – so there is that heartbreak regarding what-if and what could have been. Whilst the ‘new’ and posthumous Cranberries release will be met with interest and lust; this piece reflects on that and distils the nature of the posthumous release perfectly:

After much consideration we have decided to finish what we started,” the remaining members of the Cranberries wrote on their website this month, announcing their first new album since 2012. Dolores O’Riordan, who died earlier this year, had already finished recording her vocals: there’s no sense her parts would have needed to be imagineered. However, the ouija board of what dead musicians “would have wanted” is a faint and often baffling instrument.

Posthumous albums come in two forms: the Cobble and the Legacy. The former is the least lovable. Michael Jackson’s first posthumous release, 2010’s Michael, was so threadbare that his family strongly questioned whether it was him singing on three of its tracks – the so-called Cascio Tapes. “I immediately said it wasn’t his voice,” mused brother Randy on Twitter when he heard them. Artistically, Cobbles are normally justified on grounds of completism: that they “tell us something new” about the artist, and occasionally turf up the odd gem that “deserves to see the light of day”. On that score, something like Jackson’s Do You Know Where Your Children Are, from his second posthumous album, Xscape (2014), ticks all boxes: both a solid jam and a jarring lyrical premise. Cobbles can also offer Stalinesque revisionism: some of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’s verses on TLC’s 3D – released seven months after her death in 2002 – were spliced together from old solo album cast-offs. There was even a delayed ouija conjure from obsessively private, label-hating control freak Kurt Cobain; his 2015 soundtrack Montage of Heck – a series of solo sonic doodles and Beatles covers – only saw light of day when the Nirvana well had run dry”.


IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for the posthumous Michael Jackson album, Xscape (2014)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

I can see the appeal of posthumous releases and the itching desire to get these unfinished tracks out to the public. I am curious whether the greed of a label is the real reason why we see posthumous releases from the likes of Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson. I have mentioned artists, including David Bowie and Prince, where few are objecting but there are many more dead artists whose work has been released against their will. There are cases when musicians die unexpectedly and tragically so there is no definitive answer as to whether they would want their material released. In some cases, the band/artist were working on an album and it is cut short but accidents and unexpected mourning. I commend hard decisions and there are exceptions where a posthumous release is needed and good. I take all this into account but feel, in many cases, when an artist dies then that should be the end of things. Although I am a huge fan of Jeff Buckley and there are posthumous songs that have blown me away and I am glad saw the light of day; releasing a full album was a mistake and he would have objected to. I feel Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and other big artists would have refused labels bringing out songs/albums they were not 100% happy about and there is that unpleasant chasing of money and commercial success. Labels and estates want this music to come and people too be touched but how much of it matches the best days and does that artist justice?! I feel music cannot come out into the world until it is completely ready and that artist gives their approval. Posthumous releases can be a surprise and create some great results – in the case of Johnny Hallyday, for example – but, more often than not; there is an unpleasant aftertaste…

THAT is hard to wash away.