Second Album Syndrome


After producing my ‘disappointing albums’ post, I decided that I should study a common yet strange music phonomena, the Difficult 2nd Album. I think a lot of weight is put on bands who have produced impressive debuts to repeat the success over and over again. Debuts are often made up of years of material, tested through demos and EPs, so for it to be repeated so quickly is often difficult, especially for a new band who may not be used to working under the sort of pressure that will no doubt be put on them after an impressive debut. But nevertheless, talent endures, surely? Why would a band not be capable of a second quality record, if they had the skill to create the first? Popular examples of artists that suffered, according to popular opinion, come Round 2 are The Stone Roses, Guns N’ Roses (what is it about them damn perrenial flower shrubs?) and The Strokes.

I decided to take a few of the artists I feel most comfortable talking about (ie none of the ones mentioned above) and compare the opening two albums of their careers, paying attention to change in quality and their general standing in the critical and public eye. Hopefully that will help put some perspective onto the so-called “sophomore slump”. Or, more likely, it’s just an excuse for me to review eight albums.

Radiohead:

Pablo Honey —> The Bends

Coming off the back of roots more in tune with Pixies-style punk than traditional rock, “Pablo Honey” marched defiantly into the mainstream in 1993, but was rightly rebuked for containing too much anger and too little substance. “Creep” became a mild hit, before morphing over the years into a 90s teenage anthem. The album was inconsistent, with a few signs that the band knew their way around a riff (“Blow Out”) and knew how to structure songs (“Anyone Can Play Guitar”). Overly naive but with some skill amongst the angst. It was thought that Radiohead would soon disappear back into the post-grunge mire they had leapt out of. What wasn’t thought was that their next album would be recognised by some as one of the greatest albums of the 90s.

“The Bends”, released two years later, produced a series of tracks that again showcased Radiohead’s ability with guitars (“My Iron Lung”), but this time it had purpose, it had bittersweet darkness in place of punk shouting (“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”), and when the mood took them, the rock was passionate, contagious and accomplished, most notably on “Just”. It went down a storm, critics raving that this was the height of Britrock. The intelligence of the album, and the expected audience, clashed with the boozy Oasis and Blur who were both at their swaggering peaks at the time, but there was no dobut that Radiohead had made an outstanding record, far overshadowing its predecessor.

Bloc Party:

Silent Alarm —> A Weekend In The City

With the sound of angry Helicopter gunfire Bloc Party announced their arrival, wanting on “Silent Alarm” to give current British Rock a history lesson. They pulled a lot of tricks from the past and updated them, the lovelorn “This Modern Love” and the prettily paranoid “Banquet” not necessarily aything new, instead choosing to put old rock ideas under a 00’s microscope. The album was well-received, but the band really exploded in stature when the summer festivals of 2005 hit, and Bloc Party proved they could put on an epic rock show. The album was nominated for the Mercury Award and, though it does weaken near the end of the album, the first half of it contains enough addictive rock to keep the album afloat, and the themes and politics are welcome and never seem out of place.

Bloc Party next released “A Weekend In The City”. The leading single, “The Prayer” showed that their sound had become more expansive with a taste of the elctronic, whilst retaining their skill at structure and melody. Though the album does contain a couple of good tracks, such as “Hunting For Witches” where the sort of social vitriol seen on “Helicopter” is re-summoned, the album is mostly made up of overlong moodiness that is unsure of what statement it is making, the instrumentation on the more electronic, layered tracks meandering without purpose. The single releases meant the album was commercially about equal with the debut, but on the whole critics derided the lack of focus and enjoyable tracks.

The National:

The National —> Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers

These two albums were not widely recognised by critics, given that they were released on a minor label whilst the band were still working full-time jobs (seriously, how the HELL did they make these albums and work 40 hour a week jobs? It’s incredible). To compare these two I’ll only be able to look at how I feel about them, given that most reviews of them are only made after listening to their more popular later albums.

The debut self-titled album is packed with slow-burning middle-American songs, often spinning a yarn of dull entrapment at an office job, using caustic lyrics to sum up their dead-end predicament. Clever and flowing, the album has a few too many average tracks, and not enough that stand out, but the band were clearly very good at what they did, slightly miserablist indie-rock.

“Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers” on the other hand, well, you should already know how much I love it, my account name is based on it. It does exactly what is says on the tin, it delivers songs of dirty, angry, confusing romance. There is anger for when things go wrong, solemn anger on “Lucky You” and “Cardinal Song”, but also venomous anger on “Available”. Throught there is a sense of unrequited love, a mood often visited by the more pessimistic of rock bands. And yet the lyrics are so original, the attitude so captivating, particularly on “Murder Me Rachael”, it seem as though they are visiting unexplored territory. The tales of parental woe on “Slipping Husband” give sides to love that are rarely portrayed in music, but are just as important as fleeting love-at-first-sights. The album covers everything, nearly always successfully. It captures a variety of emotions and the sonorous baritone cry of Matt Berninger is coupled impeccably with some of the best turns of phrase I’ve heard this side of Morrissey. The album is irresistible, and though the debut has highlights, it doesn’t match up to this triumph.

Arcade Fire:

Funeral —> Neon Bible

Arcade Fire’s debut had quite the gestation period. It was formed over many months in a variety of Canadian cabins, the backdrop being the deaths of several relatives of the assorted band members. What did this produce? A stunningly beautiful album, simultaneously wracked with pain and anguish, but filled with hope, promise that bad things happen, but they can be overcome. There are tales of passion in troubled lands, mythology seems to be called upon as fantasy worlds are drawn up in the listeners mind each time Win Butler croaking Canadian vocals breach the baroque, layered instrumentation. “Tunnels” opens with a blast, an epic riff evoking the sonic introduction to “Airbag”, and the song sweeps around jubilant piano riffs as Butler cries to an nknown lover “purify the colours, purify my mind”. The rest of the album cannot possibly live up to this grand opening, but it gives it a damn good go on the choir-led “Wake Up” and the sweeping “Rebellion (Lies)”. It took a while for the album to get noticed but when it did in 2005 it certainly was noticed. Watch the end-of-decade album lists, this will crop up in a lot of top 1os. Many people have it as favourite for Pitchfork’s coveted album of the decade title.

So how could it be followed? With a subtle change in direction, “Neon Bible” being released in 2007 to indie fanfare. It was dark in much the same way that “Funeral” was, but the subtle difference was that Arcade Fire forgot to write in the uplifting bits that make up for it. Somehow, it could not be enjoyed nearly as much, because this time the problems were being put forward, but we were not reminded that everything would be OK. It was bleak, which worked for a little while, but this attitude was drawn out through the entirety of the album. It was fairly well-reviewed, and of course, living up to the debut would never be an easy task, but it was still a disappointment to hear sagging, bloated tracks such as  “Ocean Of Noise” and “My Body Is A Cage”. Highlights were there, “Intervention” is clever and swooning as it encompasses church organ and anti-war crooning. “Antichrist Television Blues” is an oustanding, shimmering star of a song, hurriedly forced out by an increasingly angered Butler, the song rising with the mood gorgeously to a vengeful climactic cry of “tell me Lord, am I the Antichrist?”. These highlights cannot make up for a lot of stretched material, however.

So what have we learnt from these four artists profiles?

Well I’ve learnt a little bit about how to structure album comparisons and how to explain the evolution of a band through time. I hope my learning shows in the writing above.

But what of the 2nd album syndrome? I have reached a conclusion that could easily have been reached without this blog but, well, I like writing, and posting. So I’m going ahead and writing all this anyway. The point is, for now I will reach the much-delayed point, that the more impressive or critically acclaimed a debut seems to be, the more likely that the second album will fail to live up to it. 2nd album syndrome is only apparant in those that have set themselves a high bar, or have had undue expectations and pressure placed on them by a record company eager to cash in on the latest hot band.

Artists may want to take a new direction after people demand a carbon copy of their first album. It seems best to say that in the long run, an artist should evolve slowly, possibly with EP or demo releases to gain peoples atteniton, rather than make immediate impact. It allows them years to find a style to suit them, or to find what range of styles they can fit into. An impressive debut leads only to a band being pidgeon-holed, and not finding adequate time to expand their sound for future releases.

I bought Elbow’s “Asleep In The Back” yesterday. First impressions, pretty good, maybe overlong and too reliant on calm, swaying tones. I’m thinking of completing their discography, since I now own that, “The Seldom Seen Kid” and “Leaders Of The Free World”. I shall contemplate it later.

(Pitchfork have placed The National’s Alligator at No. 40. I thank them for their lofty placement, and set about my day, knowledgable that one of my favourite albums is critically appreciated.)

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About Alex Pavitt
I work in the field of emotion. My tools are instinctual feelings and my laptop is the medium between my brain and the outside world. I deconstruct and rebuild. I imagine. I steal other people's lyrics because somtimes, my own words aren't enough. I spend all of my time somewhere inside my head. I worship Douglas Adams, and in the back of my mind I am always painfully aware that I will never be as good as him or, for that matter, anybody else.

2 Responses to Second Album Syndrome

  1. Ignus Iudicium says:

    Another fine blog, my dear. No arguments here.

  2. Laurence says:

    I stumbled onto this blog from a link in your RYM review for a National album (my newest favourite band), and was delighted to read your thoughts on the four sets of first/second albums.

    I must say I agree with you on pretty much all counts, the second album seems a hard one for most people. However, (as you pointed out) it all depends on the context of the first record and how it was received at the time. It seems my borderline obsessive compulsive tendencies have reached a point where (once I’ve determined that they’re worth checking out) I will always listen to an artist’s albums in order, so as to fully appreciate their artistic growth and the evolution of the music.

    This means I’ve got many first/second album pairs in my collection to think about, and there are definitely a lot that “break the rule”. Blur’s “Modern Life is Rubbish” and Bjork’s “Post” come to mind immediately as albums that completely re-defined the artists in question and made their debut album predecessors suddenly look much paler in comparison. I know this is pushing it, but “Axis: Bold as Love” is my all time favourite Hendrix record, despite the milestone status of it’s earlier brother.

    Anyways, great writing & please keep it up, I’m off to listen to Pure Phase…

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