The middle 70s were a hideous time for people who loved rock. David Gates and Bread getting all sappy and sensitive. Captain and Tenille cooing about “Muskrat Love.” America and their “Horse with No Name.” Add in Dan Fogelberg, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, James Taylor, a bunch of Eagles songs, the Little River Band and a slew of others and AM radio was all mellow, all the time. No wonder punk happened.
The mellow phenomenon returned in the late 00’s, led by the beardy banjo guys in Mumford and Sons. They were followed by a parade of sensitive, introspective indie rockers who saw no reason to find an electric guitar and turn it up to 11. And just as things started to get a little louder and more angry (thank you, Donald Trump!), along comes Harry Styles with “Sign of the Times,” a throwback to the crooners of the 70s. This is from Salon.
Styles’ retro-rock looting isn’t an isolated incident, however. Father John Misty’s lyric-focused album “Pure Comedy” has the sparse, piano-heavy tilt of Elton John records such as 1975’s “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” Indie rockers such as Foxygen, Mac DeMarco and the Lemon Twigs also are heavily indebted to the more kaleidoscopic end of ’70s rock. The latter act has been drawing special attention for its nods to ELO, Big Star, Todd Rundgren and Harry Nilsson. And then there are the dozens of artists ripping off ’70s looks — signifiers such as wild ‘n’ wooly facial hair, rakish suits and loud-patterned shirts.
Interestingly enough, the aura of cult cool around power-pop legends Big Star and newly minted Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees ELO has started to rub off on an unexpected niche: ’70s soft rock artists. These acts have been cropping up as major sonic inspirations in 2017.
Aimee Mann’s latest album, “Mental Illness,” takes cues from soft rock icons Bread and Dan Fogelberg. “The musicianship is fantastic; the singing is beautiful,” Mann said of the former in a recent Salon interview. “It’s very soft, but it’s kind of ballsy in how it just is like ‘Yup, I’m fucking soft, and I’m singing soft songs about how I would do anything to keep you’ or ‘Go ahead and do whatever you want, and I’ll be here forever.’”
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, country star Zac Brown namechecked folk singers Jim Croce and James Taylor as influences on the Zac Brown Band’s “purist, back-to-our-roots record,” “Welcome Home.” And 15-year-old Brennley Brown, a contestant on the current season of “The Voice,” was lauded by Shania Twain and Gwen Stefani for her version of Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time.” Even movies are getting into the act: The new “Guardians of the Galaxy 2″ features Looking Glass’ pebble-smooth “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” while the first movie in the series utilizes Rupert Holmes’ smugly clever “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” to great effect.
This resurgence across genres and generations can arguably be attributed to Fleetwood Mac, which has enjoyed a popularity surge in recent years and remains an object of cultural fascination, and the ongoing “yacht rock” phenomenon immortalized in (and popularized by) a video series of the same name. In general, parents and kids also share a love of classic rock: Nielsen named the genre the “format of the summer” in 2016, while the organization’s year-end music statistics from last year ranked classic rock at No. 7 among listeners ages 18-34. There’s no longer the wide chasm between the musical tastes of different generations.
But what else is driving this soft rock surge?