The legendary status of a musician isn't something necessarily conveyed through music. Think of Keith Richards appearing in Pirates of the Caribbean, or David Bowie's cameo in the Ricky Gervais sitcom Extras. Or, notably, when Bob Dylan appeared in advertisements for Cadillac and Chrysler cars. Having spent their careers so far eluding definition, this, they decide, is the time to embrace and play with public perception, not run from it.
Iggy Pop is also a musician very much in this wry, self-aware phase of life. His young career was marked by excessive behaviour of every kind, his intelligent and profoundly humourous mind often displaced in the public imagination by the havoc he wreaked upon his body. Never mind the excessive drug habit, there was also the violence and self-harm of his performances to consider.
At the moment, Pop (born James Osterberg, in 1947) has found several ways of addressing and continuing his legend. Jeremy Deller – a British conceptual artist with huge empathy and humour – has recently persuaded him to participate in a work where he poses naked as a life model. In two very different new musical offerings, meanwhile, Iggy addresses several aspects of his personality, legend and legacy.
In truth, Pop was an early believer in trading on his own legend. Rather than being governed by the grand plan that can sometimes dictate a career, his has fluctuated between major high points (like his influential early work with the monolithic, proto-punk Stooges, without which most rock bands would be at a loss for anything to play) and a solo career which (barring The Idiot and Lust for Life, two mid-1970s LPs recorded with his pal David Bowie) has, to say the least, been hit-and-miss. He has, however, always kept busy, his work an endorsement in the virtue in saying "yes" to everything.
In addition to the obligatory acting performances, Pop has had an interesting portfolio career: he has narrated documentaries on William Burroughs, advertised car insurance and guested on tracks by (to list just three particularly good examples) Death in Vegas, Peaches and At the Drive-In. His voice is warm, deep and suggests hard-earned wisdom, and his cameo appearance on a record provides a wow factor, which encourages you to look in a direction you might not have otherwise explored. Presenting exhibit A: Leaves of Grass, a seven-track EP, in which Iggy narrates work by the American poet Walt Whitman, backed by two German electronic artists: alva noto (the alias of Carsten Nicolai) and Tarwater.
It's an extremely enjoyable 23-minute record. In it, Iggy delivers languorous interpretations of Whitman's sensual, bodily work. The music is quietly fizzing and pulsing, occasionally punctuated by digital renderings of the natural world. Meanwhile, in a voice rich and fruity, Iggy joins Whitman in a celebration of fecundity. A particularly good track is A Woman Waits for Me in which he sees a future family of "fierce, athletic girls/New artists, musicians and singers ... "
Key words you will hear in this work are “love”, “trembling” and – on several occasions – “loins”. At first glance, the immediate juxtapositions offered by the EP (between the chaotic reputation of the narrator and the high culture origin of this material; between the hard rock icon and electronic music) might seem to make it an ironic late-career character cameo. In fact, it works on a rather deeper level, articulating the disparity between physical and cerebral which is a feature of Iggy’s work, and reaffirming the link that exists between Pop, his best two solo albums and Germany.
David Bowie's storied Berlin period, in which he welcomed new and adventurous electronic elements into his music, was for the most part also time he spent cordially with Iggy Pop. In this same year or so (roughly 1976 to 1977), the pair also created The Idiot, for many the best Pop solo album – and very much an influence on another new Iggy Pop release this month, his new album proper, Post Pop Depression.
A full band record made with Josh Homme and Dean Fertita from Queens of the Stone Age, accompanied by Matt Helders from Arctic Monkeys on drums, the work references the past with something like the lightness of touch (if not quite the same effortless grace) that Bowie himself managed on The Next Day, his surprise comeback album of 2013. In his initial approach to Homme, Pop apparently wrote him a letter reminiscing about his time working with Bowie.
Compact, claustrophobic and modern, The Idiot was a great record, but very far from a swinging rock and roller – being more about discipline than letting it all hang out. Homme (who also produces here) and the band, none of them strangers to sharp-cornered rock, do a solid job in offering something like that sound, stopping short of pastiche. They can't hope to muster the freshness of Bowie's original production, but they succeed – as do the Walt Whitman record and the Jeremy Deller event – in focusing the attention, unflinchingly, on Iggy himself.
In the context of some howlers like Zombie Birdhouse (1982) or his jazz records Préliminaires (2009) or Après (2012), this is perhaps more what one might hope for from an Iggy Pop album. It places the singer in a complementary setting and allows him to sing and turn a phrase, at both of which he is highly accomplished. The singing, which is excellent throughout, also seems intended to recall Bowie's wonderful vibrato.
This is also a record on occasion concerned with the body – if in a less spiritual fashion to Leaves of Grass. More pressingly, it deals, albeit in a pretty vague way, with age and legacy. American Valhalla is an interesting, drifting piece, ("This hasn't been an easy life," Iggy sings at one point) and you can imagine it sitting on one of the Bowie-produced albums, but it's only at the very end of the song it reaches a true freshness. Unaccompanied, Iggy draws breath on a slightly melodramatic conclusion: "I have nothing but my name."
It’s a striking moment on a solid album. Above all though, it serves to remind that while a poetry album may seem like a step towards domesticity and gentrification, it’s actually there where Iggy is out of a self-referential comfort zone, and creatively surging forward irresponsibly. Displaying all the characteristics, in fact, of a continued lust for life.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.