Every time an artist releases a successful debut album or rests loftily on a respected back catalogue, the pressure is inevitably on to make a better and bolder musical statement than their initial efforts: the sophomore album. Cue larger studios with famous and established producers, a larger budget, free drugs and a litany of music press deliberations over whether the band is up to the challenge. The Stone Roses, The Vines, The Darkness and The Ordinary Boys buckled under the pressure, failing to capture the essence of what made their first albums so fresh and exciting.
In the ‘80s, artists were expected to make a loss on a lacklustre debut, but were also given the chance to grow as developing artists with scope to improve on their second, third and fourth efforts. But in the current climate of the cutthroat music industry, a band’s career rides on the back of their debut, which has to be a no-holds-barred bestseller, receiving sage nods from beard-stroking critics to get them out of their parents’ house and into the city.
This year has seen bands stepping up to the sophomore challenge and knocking the proverbial ball of expectations and hype out of the ballpark. Take Modest Mouse, who have gathered steam with a delightful catalogue of indie releases over the years. We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank amazingly entered the billboard chart at number one. Perhaps recruiting Johnny Marr into their ranks has something to do with the album’s stellar songs; different, yet unmistakably them. Kings Of Leon, yet again, manage to produce an album bettering their already great work to stadium levels of epicness and killer tunes in ball-busting jeans. Fantastic. Soon we can all unravel the puzzle which is Biffy Clyro’s gargantuan contender for best rock album since Nevermind.
What all these albums have in common is creators challenging themselves, striving towards new sounds, ideas and not resting on the laurels of previous work or the engulfing hype the music press scaffold around bands. A good sophomore effort is the ability to ignore critical ruminations which anyway is all in the effort to sell a magazine.
Bands can fold and produce tawdry, boring work such as Maxïmo Park’s Our Earthly Pleasures and Maroon 5’s new ‘style-over-substance’ effort, their sophomore album will surely sell but clog up the radio with their inconsequential complaints. The problem with hype is in large part due to the gap artists have to dwell on single choices, image and track-listing, far removed from the music, of course. New bands should take a leaf from Arctic Monkeys’ book, who’ve vowed to be prolific.
Critics complain that being prolific is disingenuous or lacking editing skills. I never understand this view: surely putting out more work shows a dedication as a hard-working musician, continually immersed in the process? That old pop group The Beatles were quite good at that, an album every 10 months or so with a musical progression that most bands today couldn’t achieve in 10 years, let alone 10 months. Blame the hype, don’t believe the hype.