When David Bowie came back with his "The Next Day" album it was knowingly an album that mined the various stages of his career. Not because that was all he could do (as the future-gazing "Blackstar" would prove) but because it was some of the things he could do. The cover of that album was a pop art collage recreation of "Heroes", belatedly (since it didn't sell that well), one of his most iconic records.
He is not alone. Zappa's first three albums were cut up collage affairs that mined a multifaceted musical past and pasted them together. In the years to come he would separate out these instincts - so "Hot Rats" was his funky jazz album, "Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets" his doo wop album etc. There are artists who have a thin seam they mine - maybe Dylan is like this, but he mines it deep. In retrospect the reviled double album "Self Portrait" is the most emblematic of this. Here is Dylan explicitly as magpie. Mark E. Smith was similar: always sounding like the Fall whether he took in garage rock, rockabilly, disco, cheesy '70s pop. British Beat, Krautrock or even Zappa.
I like to think musicians as they get older are able to pull in a wider palette than their forbears. As someone who has only ever used synthesizers in my music I've been always a bit in denial about those forbears - trying (in my own head at least) to emulate non-synth musicians. But I had a bit of a revelation before Christmas when I listened to my albums from '85 onwards in order. I saw that I was working my way through the various archetypes of electronic music - on the way to my own version of this. In 1985 it wasn't very fashionable to sound like early 1970s Tangerine Dream, but that was clearly what I sounded like; but a year later I was stumbling through early electronic new wave like the Normal and Cabaret Voltaire, and onto to electronic pop like Human League, before heading into New Order, house music and maybe rave. Yet my first house track was a few months before I'd heard Jack Your Body, so I went from being an imitator of past styles to being an unconscious designer of future ones.
Listening to my music over the last few years, this mix of the retro and futuristic is something that is at the heart of my musical project. I am past, present and future, but then I always was. Imitators often become the thing they tried to imitate - so Dylan is our examplar of Greenwich folk, or Depeche Mode quickly became the biggest electronic band in the world. I can't pretend any such power for my own music of course, but I think there's a sense that a steady sticking to the same electronica means that its possible to step outside of time somehow and just become part of the historical narrative you were initially imitating.