Richard Elliott. 2015. The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-6289-2118-2 (hbk); 978-1-6289-2064-2 (ePUB); 978-1-6289-2083-3 (ePDF). 289 pp.

Reviewed by: Anna Szemere, independent scholar

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Keywords: Leonard Cohen; Bob Dylan; Joni Mitchell; Frank Sinatra; Ralph Stanley; Neil Young; bluegrass; singer-songwriter; rock music; gender; ageing; performance studies; voice studies; narrative theory; memory studies; psychoanalysis

Ageing and the diverse ways in which rock, pop and other music styles once associated with youth continue to matter in later life is an increasingly relevant and expanding sub-field in popular music research. A number of musical icons whose career is or was rooted in the 1960s have not stopped (or did not stop) releasing new albums over the decades, raising a set of intriguing questions taken up by Elliott’s innovative, theoretically sophisticated, and finely written book. What does a late style, a late voice mean in popular as opposed to art music? How is the altering poetic and singing voice of an ageing star perceived by their audience, a significant segment of which has experienced a similar process? Is the late voice associated with biological age or a specific phase of an artist’s long career? In addressing these issues, Elliott carefully avoids what Motti Regev (2002) has called ‘pop-rockism’ by providing the reader with case studies representing a relatively broad gamut of genres and styles covering a period of about seventy years.

What renders Elliott’s study unique is his interest in the early attainment of the late voice, which he associates with chronology, the vocal act, a musician’s afterlife enabled by the recorded sound, and ‘the writing of age, experience, lateness, and loss’ (p. 4). This explains why Sinatra’s albums of the 1960s exemplify maturity rather than the albums released later. Similarly, from this perspective, the Dylan of the 1960s comes across as an ‘older’ artist than the Dylan of Blood on the Tracks.

Following the Introduction, chapter 1 lays out the book’s conceptual framework wherein Elliott elaborates on his project’s indebtedness to voice studies, with due emphasis on Barthes’s ‘grain of the voice’ narrative theory combined with a phenomenological approach and theories of memory incorporating psychoanalytic perspectives. His key concepts—time, age and experience—are compellingly woven together to mutually complement and corroborate one another: age is defined as ‘embodied time’, which connects to experience viewed as ‘measuring and feeling time’. Accumulated experience is the key source not only of wisdom ideally attained as we age but also of aesthetic (musical) creativity and the listener’s aesthetic (musical) experience. The representation of experience in art (music), Elliott argues, helps us regain control over time—something ‘lost’ through ageing. Story-telling disrupts the ‘normal’ flow of time by its own narrative time and is thus a vital means of retrospection and memory work. Besides a range of cultural, media and philosophical theories, Elliott’s arguments are interspersed with frequent references to fiction, poetry and film.

Chapters 2 to 5 are case studies, starting with the exploration of Ralph Stanley’s late voice with special regard to issues of authorship and individuality, both complicated by Stanley’s voice being embedded in the ‘oldness’ of a musical tradition and a way of life associated with rural Appalachia. Chapter 3 addresses a form of masculine vulnerability and world-weariness compared and contrasted in the respective musical world of Frank Sinatra and Leonard Cohen. Chapters 4 (on Bob Dylan) and chapter 5 (on Joni Mitchell and Neil Young) revolve around life/death metaphors such as ‘road’, ‘river’, ‘journey’, and ‘home’. While the pairing of the two ‘confessional’ artists, Mitchell and Young, is persuasive, an intriguing contrast presented between Dylan’s journey involving his struggle with a sense of displacement—and, I would add, its possible nexus with his Jewish background—and Young’s strong sense of place and home, would have merited further critical attention.

Overall, however, The Late Voice is an outstanding scholarly contribution to the study of ageing in popular music, exhibiting the author’s vast interdisciplinary knowledge and mastery of nuanced interpretation: a dizzying number of recorded songs are analysed and compared in the context of genre and stylistic conventions, biographies, and other relevant narratives such as memoirs and biopics. Elliott makes astute observations on how recording technology has shaped the musicians’ vocal performances, music aesthetic choices, and authorial self-fashioning. The in-depth case studies are enriched by extended commentaries on the late voice of Nina Simone, Judy Collins, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash, to name just a few. The book is complete with a discography of over a hundred items and a filmography.


Regev, Motti. 2002. ‘Rock Aesthetic and the “Pop-Rockization” of Popular Music’. In Popular Music Studies, ed. David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus, 251–64. London: Arnold.