During his brief, glorious early ’70s peak, it seemed that Marc Bolan could send seismic tremors through the universe with delectable nonchalance. He switched from Tolkien-esque freak folk to Chuck Berry boogie in the span of an album. On a whim, he dabbed some glitter on his cheekbones before a Top of the Pops performance that was—per Simon Reynolds’ Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy—“the spark that ignited the glam explosion.” His greatest singles feel tossed off with all the deliberation of a shake of his curly locks.
By comparison, the long fermenting Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex feels far more studied, pondered, and brooded over. Even with big names like Kesha, U2, Elton John, Father John Misty, Joan Jett, and Nick Cave swelling out this two-disc set, it sounds oddly anonymous. Overseen by pop music’s great magpie, the late Hal Willner, it follows in the producer’s style of pulling together an eclectic roster of talents to highlight nearly forgotten artists like Nino Rota, Kurt Weill, and Harold Arlen, proffering a gateway drug to curious listeners. He could dig deep for talent: A 1988 tribute to the music of vintage Disney films featured Tom Waits, the Replacements, and Sun Ra offering unorthodox takes on those intimately familiar songs. A Hal Willner compilation was, in the words of one estimation, “a place of scary, monumental meetings [that] Willner... made a career of turning into art.”
The “monumental meetings” underpinning Angelheaded Hipster had been underway for some time. Arriving almost five months after his death from COVID-19 complications, the set was first mentioned in a 2017 Times profile of Willner, with him in the studio with Marc Almond and Foetus’ J.G. Thirwell. The story finds Almond “worried” about the end results, but the former Soft Cell singer delivers a dramatic reading set against a backdrop of beatnik walking bassline, quivering strings, and outbursts of tango. Risk-taking, insouciant in its mashing of genre, this version of “Teenage Dream” is a classic Willner soundclash.
That daredevil spirit is in short order elsewhere. Hoping for “TiK ToK”-era Kesha to nail a frothy couplet like “I drive a Rolls-Royce/’Cuz it's good for my voice,” we instead get heavy-metal karaoke Kesha on the plodding and overwrought “Children of the Revolution.” Despite the teaming of two of the biggest dynasties in pop and rock, U2 and Sir Elton John (a pal of Bolan and early glam apostle) give a flaccid read of “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” Between Bono’s low-energy vocal and John’s piano serving as mere backdrop, they turn one of glam rock’s crunchiest singles into solemn porridge. The less said about Todd Rundgren and David Johansen’s contributions, the better.
The most intriguing wrinkle of the set is the influx of country, as on Lucinda Williams’ twangy take on “Life’s a Gas.” Joan Jett does “Jeepster” as a full-on honky-tonk number, with Jett delivering all the sexual menace of the kicker “I’m gonna suck ya!,” and King Khan keeps “I Love to Boogie” firmly in the roadhouse. Gentle interpretations like Devendra Banhart’s dreamy “Scenescof” and Gabby Moreno’s exotica-tinged “Beltane Walk” also add nuance to the man’s music. Emily Haines delivers a haunted “Ballrooms of Mars,” but the version is derailed by a baffling intrusion of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from The Planets.
But the oddest development of Angelheaded Hipster is that most of the 20-plus participants opt to inject angst and torpor into Bolan rather than revel in his pomp and frivolity. Beth Orton sings each syllable of “Hippy Gumbo” like she’s wringing out laundry. Nick Cave is well suited for the poignant ballad “Cosmic Dancer,” but where Bolan grows increasingly lithe and light as the song takes flight, Cave remains leaden in his delivery, singing the word “balloon” as if attaching an anvil to one. And how did Father John Misty pass up the chance to refer to himself in the third person? Instead he stays true to “Bolan likes to rock now” on a version of “Main Man” that’s more Jackson Browne than Bolan.
In the same Willner profile, he admits: “I don’t know what inspires people now. Do these last two generations have heroes? I’m not sure they do.” The packed roster shows that Bolan remains a hero to musicians and a tragic icon, dead before the age of 30. Sadly, Willner’s last great tribute album tells us little about its subject. Angelheaded Hipster suggests that digging into Bolan’s depths might ultimately be a fool's errand; the singer’s genius was in laying everything out on a coy, glittery surface, making it all sound so effortless.
Buy: Rough Trade
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.