Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sophomore "Slumps"

I’ve always been a big fan of debut albums. The debut album is typically everything that’s right about a band, captured at their most vibrant, their most desperate, their most achingly creative…essentially the reason why they became popular, label-worthy and important in the first place. I think a lot of folks would agree.

So how do you follow that up? Well, that’s always been tricky, right? I mean the sophomore slump is generally a wink and an understanding pat on the back from fans and critics that it’s hard to know what to do next. More of the same? Yes? No? Sorta? Well then which direction should we go? Do we want to cater to fans, radio, critics or our own musical muse? While I know many bands have made conscious decisions along these lines, there are just as many who have not. I guess every band is different depending on where they want to be in the rock n roll spectrum and how they want to be remembered (if they’re remembered) five, ten, twenty-five years down the line.

I like to think that every effort from an artist, from the debut to the swansong, is a legitimate piece of art that at the time was the best they could manage based on circumstances surrounding its creation. When I read a critic lamenting that so-and-so just doesn’t have the passion they once did, I want to scream ‘How do you know???’ You don’t. Maybe it is lacking, but maybe said so-and-so had a lot going on at the time and didn’t realize they were performing below your standards. Maybe they thought they were knockin’ you out of your socks just like they had for the past four releases. Maybe you should just cut a bit o’ slack and try it for yourself. I guarantee you writing a “good” review (be it positive or negative) is worlds easier than churning out 10-12 songs of cohesive merit. Reviews are based on opinion and nothing more (which includes those by yours truly), while albums are based on basically everything but opinion.

I’m sorry; did I go off on a rant there?

In reference to the first paragraph -- it can also be said of a debut album, especially in retrospect, that while it is good, shows promise, gives the potential of things to come, the band hasn’t quite meshed yet, hasn’t quite discovered their special secret, hasn’t quite matured, steeped, mulled, fermented, waxed, aged, etc, etc, etc and that further/future efforts delivered the goods that the debut only hinted at. Fair enough, I can see that from Black Sabbath to Tim Buckley, and that’s where the sophomore album comes in to play.

Another small diversion here; but there are instances where a band on their second album will basically just change tack, head in a different direction, throw everyone for a loop. Oftentimes that’s done with a shift from an indie to a major label. But just as often it’s an inevitable change of course, from following a new musical chart or because they’ve suddenly found themselves with a different helmsman, the reasons can be basically limitless. (Also, enough with the nautical references.)

Two examples:

• The Cure—Three Imaginary Boys/Boys Don’t Cry→17 Seconds: From jangle pop reminiscent of Buzzcocks’ post punk, Mad Bob and crew went to total bleak and echo with a change in tempo and the addition of keyboards. Really, only the title track from Three Imaginary Boys hinted at these possibilities. Thirty years later we’ve accepted this fact, but at the time I’m sure it scratched more than a few heads and if you really think about it, seems like a strange move. Still, it was a good one.
• Depeche Mode—Speak & Spell→A Broken Frame: The problem here is that Vince Clarke, who had penned all but two of the dozen or so songs comprising the debut and its scattered b-sides, suddenly left the band to do another project. While Martin L. Gore seamlessly took over creative control, and while the synth pop sounds were still the forte, the style and approach shifted dramatically from basically bebop pop ditties, to long, dark, introspective dirges. Again, these were hinted at with at least the Gore penned Tora Tora Tora on the debut, but it’s obvious from Clarke’s work with Yazoo and later Erasure, that had he stayed with Depeche Mode, the brooding, earthy tones eventually discovered on Music for the Masses and later perfected on Violator, Exciter and Playing the Angel, would have never come to pass.

Now, having said ALL of that…my thought here is to focus on a few albums that are generally labeled (I’ll say albatrossed) with the “sophomore slump” moniker, but which very realistically maybe should not be. One of those is Boston’s 1978 effort Don’t Look Back (see my previous post), which basically gave me the idea for this entry. But a few others may be:

U2 – October: I’ve always thought this was an underrated album even though I’ve always touted Boy as the greatest of U2’s output. The recording story of October is a frustrating one full of setbacks and attempts to capitalize on the early success of the debut, etc -- a familiar tale in many artists' histories -- and critics and fans have often panned this album as being lackluster and poorly produced. I couldn’t disagree more as October has always had a special place in my heart. And ever since the re-issues from last year, October has not only grown in my affections, it’s proven to stand the test of time much better than Boy and (yes, I’m officially making the announcement here) has even surpassed that album as my all time favorite U2 album.

Key Tracks: Gloria, Fire, Scarlet

The Smiths – Meat is Murder: I have a previous entry for this album, but I want to reiterate that for me, this is where the Smiths found themselves, especially when it came to J-Marr’s layered and trademark guitar sound. Unfortunately the most known song is the very maudlin (a perfect word to describe a Smiths song, even if I mean it with a negative bend) and (to me) very un-Smithsish How Soon is Now? -- but the trio of I Want the One I Can’t Have, What She Said and Nowhere Fast essentially sum up everything the Smiths were about in under ten minutes. And also let us not forget the aching sigh that is Well I Wonder. Mope pop perfection.

Key Tracks: I Want the One I Can’t Have, Nowhere Fast, Well I Wonder

The B-52’s – Wild Planet: For most folks who want to call themselves a B-52’s fan, it’s either the debut ‘cos of the cult status (though I really can’t get into that album) or Cosmic Thing ‘cos of the hits (and deservedly so), but does anyone remember Private Idaho? You do? Good, ‘cos it’s on this album and the rest of the tracks are just as awesome. For me this was the album that gelled the kitschy wink of Rock Lobster and Planet Claire with a more honed, pop sensibility that makes these nine bursts of quirky fun much more palatable than the debut ever could (or intended to) be.

Key Tracks: Private Idaho, Devil in My Car, Strobe Light

Psychedelic Furs -- Talk Talk Talk: Nobody really pays attention to the Furs anyway, so really nobody knows that their debut was a chaotic wall of fantastic noise while their second album (which produced Pretty in Pink) was a more sculpted, dare I say sophisticated effort that was surprisingly removed and yet every much of the same sound as what these six lads had put out the year before. It pointed towards a pop future with 80s/college radio hits like Love My Way, Ghost in You and Heartbreak Beat, but it still held that snarling edge that only Richard Butler could deliver and in it’s more desperate moments (which is basically all of them), leaves the listener frantic in their skin.

Key Tracks: Dumb Waiters, She is Mine, Into You Like a Train

Chris Isaak-- Chris Isaak: Nobody really pays attention to Chris Isaak either -- or at least not before or since Wicked Game -- and that’s a rotten shame, ‘cos his sophomore album is surpassed only by his masterpiece Forever Blue (when all his lonely planets aligned). Perhaps aptly self-titled, Chris was sort of representing himself with this album as a serious act and not a show pony poster boy with an Elvis look. It’s the first with what would prove to be his to-this-day-running backing band Silvertone (with one lead guitarist change along the way), and while he continues in the same mournful croon bemoaning the pain of love, it’s with a self-confidence and overall prowess that makes the debut just look like a warm up set.

Key Tracks: You Owe Me Some Kind of Love, Blue Hotel, Lover’s Game

And here are a couple of generally lauded sophomore efforts that for one reason or another just make me go, “Eh…,” and not ‘cos I don’t like them, just ‘cos I don’t think they’re quite as magical as their predecessor.

Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II – In a word, this album meanders. It’s a great batch of songs with no real rhythm or flow, just tacked on one right after the other, flip the record and do it again. If these tracks were re-sequenced, sifted onto different albums, maybe standalone singles, I might be less apt to go “Oh yeah, Heartbreaker…” ‘cos I really love nearly every song on this record, it’s just delivered all wrong. Plus, I hate drum solos.

Joy Division: Closer – This is just a big bunch of murk and I blame Martin “Zero” Hannett’s production. It’s weighed down by the bulk of it’s own self. While Unknown Pleasures was equally as dark and twice as sinister, there is a lot of space between the notes to discover a sense of self. On Closer there’s just a feeling of claustrophobia so intense that numbers like Colony and Twenty Four Hours (much better in their Peel Sessions counterparts) simply plod along instead of ripping your heart out. By the time I get to the truly beautiful Decades, I don’t care any more.

REM: Reckoning – It’s not because Murmur is perfect and blah, blah. Murmur could never be duplicated and I think they went in the right direction. I just don’t care for this album and this batch of songs as much, with of course a couple of notable exceptions (So Central Rain). Most folks look down on Fables, and while I admit that’s an awkward one, it holds all the dark and majestic promise that Pageant and Document would soon deliver in spades. Reckoning for me just fills a gap in my CD case.

And a couple of notable and deservedly so second outings:

• The Pixies: Doolittle – If it weren’t for the dreadful Silver, this album would be flawless. Stupid Kim Deal (I love you).
• Duran Duran: Rio – I still hold the debut as my favorite, but Rio truly set the stage and personified everything right and deserving in the Fab Five’s success (the first time).
• Iggy Pop: Lust for Life – I stayed away from this album for years ‘cos I’m not thrilled with the title track, but I’ve now accepted it as a guilty pleasure. I am so glad I did ‘cos the rest of the album picks up on that gritty pop and delivers a rock goodness that is without equal.


If said...

see, this is another reason why i think it's smart that i've chosen to be an obscure eccentric hiding my music in a small corner of the world to barely mention it to anybody. also, releasing track by track instead of album by album.

my sophomore slump is over AND it was sort of fuzzy as certain ok tracks during that slump get to stand as sort of ok amongst, "God matt is weird. he should've stayed in no party instead of being an asshole."



7 chinese brothers.

wagners of rock said...

I'm actually in the middle of writing about the B-52's first album but i'll give Wild Planet a better listen. I like it but not like #1.

Also, i take issue with your dimissal of Reckoning. You are entitled to your opinion but if i had a glove, i would slap you with it.