|The Curse of the Sophomore Album: The Victims of 2008 (So Far...)|
For as long as people have been making albums, there's been a strange phenomenon to go with them: the curse of the sophomore album.
Every year there are a few breakout records of bands that show great promise. And yet about a year or two later, when they have to follow up their freshman effort with something equally as good or better, they ultimately disappoint with few exceptions (I literally can’t think of an exception to put here).
There are of course also the bands who go fairly unnoticed outside of expert circles with their first album and then hit it (relatively) big with their second, see Coldplay, The All-American Rejects or The Format (although recently disbanded), but these bands are a different phenomenon altogether.
Now, why is it that the second album seems to be such a curse and should you give up on these bands immediately after they let you down?
The answer to the first half of the question is relatively easy: most of the time the first album from a band contains songs they have been working on for years, playing them at all the small live shows they had to do before they got a record deal. This means they had a lot of time to weed out the bad seeds and hence ended up with a record full of hits. But with this hit record breathing down their necks they are expected to promptly deliver a second album to cash in on the hype, and most of the time they only have a few months to record it. It would take a particular genius to write ten to fifteen amazing songs within a few months, since most of the time you have to come up with at least ten songs to have even one that is worth keeping. Hence a lot of sophomore albums have one song that sounds peculiarly a lot like the band’s first hit, and a whole lot of other crap no one needed to hear.
The second part of my posed question is infinitely harder to answer. Should you give up on a band that fails to deliver anything exciting on their second album? It depends on how great the disappointment is, how well you liked them the first time around and whether or not they are willing to admit that what they came up with on album number two wasn’t really worth anyone’s time. Also make sure the disappointment is not your own fault and you weren’t expecting an exact duplicate of their first record, but something that incorporated the old and brought in something new as well.
Now, while 2007 also saw a few bad sophomore albums (by Rooney, Kaiser Chiefs, The Honorary Title, The Academy Is… and a few others), 2008 seems to be a particularly bad year for sophomore efforts. The two previous years (’06 and ’07) had a lot of bands exploding onto the music scene, who now have to step up and show us what they’ve got.
Here’s the verdict on a few of the most prominent victims of the Curse of the Sophomore Album in 2008 so far:
The Kooks – Konk
This quirky English band met at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music and rocked every indie club with their poppy yet witty tracks “Naïve”, “Ooh La” or “She Moves in Her Own Way”. Luke Pritchard’s undeniable Yorkshire accent contributed greatly to the inherent awesomeness their first album Inside In – Inside Out possessed. This was in fact so awesome that many a consumer was tricked by this awesomeness into buying the new album Konk, which promptly peaked at the #1 spot on the UK charts. But just as many of these consumers must have been disappointed by what they actually found on their discs. Two or three cheap knock-offs of “Naïve” and “She Moves in Her Own Way” and a whole lot of music drivel. It is all the more horrifying the band claims to have written 80 or 90 songs for Konk and Pritchard says he wanted our heads “blown off” by this album. Seems to me they threw out the 65 or 75 good and memorable songs (assuming they wrote any of that kind) and kept the redundant rest. Maybe I am being a bit harsh here, but that is what happens, love turns sour upon disappointment.
Verdict: It’s too early to count them out, Konk has a decent middle part, but they are going to have to try a whole lot harder next time around.
Panic at the Disco – Pretty. Odd.
Indubitably PatD can only qualify as mainstream and their music annoys many an emo-hater or “respectable adult”. While A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was crammed full of teenage pretension and sometimes deliciously senseless lyrics, it still found a way into the hearts of many lovers of danceable rock grandeur. Their new album though is indeed pretty odd, as the title proclaims, in the way that it is pretty odd these Las Vegas variety show geeks ran out of quirky ideas already. More shocking is that they started writing the album in early 2007 and then scrapped everything in July of the same year to start over. Apparently that didn’t help though, because Pretty. Odd. dribbles along without any real passion. Don’t get me wrong, it is sorta nice to listen to in the background, but it lacks the punch, sound fragmentation and wildly danceable beats PatD delivered on their freshman effort. They like to sell the new album as being “lighter in tone and more mature”, but really, it is just boring, because they are trying to be wiser (lyrically and musically) than they ought to be for a band that is better fitted to make you shake what you got than make you think.
Yet PatD benefited from the same phenomenon as The Kooks, they cashed in on their reputation. Pretty. Odd. debuted at #2 in the US and at #1 in Australia. The most obvious indicator that PatD (hopefully temporarily) lost their punch are the slightly unimaginative track titles on Pretty. Odd. When on A Fever… we got awesome quotes and references like “Lying Is the Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off” or “The Only Difference Between Suicide and Martyrdom is Press Coverage”, the new album has boring titles like “Northern Downpour” or “Behind the Sea”.
Not much is left of the variety show-like craziness that made the first album such a smash hit. Sure, it posed some difficulties when trying to dance to the erratically assembled sound fragments of thirty seconds, but that was what made PatD fun and memorable.
Verdict: They are too mainstream to go away any time soon, but after Pretty. Odd. I won’t be itching in my seat anymore for anything new these guys have to spew.
The Fratellis – Here We Stand
It pains me to Promethean degrees to have to put this band on 2008’s Victim List, but after trying very hard to love their sophomore album I still don’t think it lives up to what I know these guys can do.
I distinctly remember talking to a friend of mine about The Fratellis’ first album Costello Music and saying “I can’t believe they managed to make an album where every single song is a hit”. Going back to the album now I can find maybe three or four tracks that aren’t really hits but a spur of the moment fix, and yet Costello Music is infectiously fun, funny and furiously entertaining. If ever I suffered lumbago, I would put on “Creepin’ Up the Backstairs” and shake it off to the frantic beat. If I needed to entertain three drunken hooligans to keep them from crashing my apartment, I would put on “Chelsea Dagger” and have them sing along to the duh-da-duh’s. Costello Music has a song for every occasion that involves a party.
No such luck with Here We Stand. There are a few tracks where past brilliance shimmers through (“Acid Jazz Singer”, “Tell Me Lies”, half of “Milk and Money”), but you search in vain for the infamous tempi changes leading to lyrics being delivered in warp speed and the catchy bap-ba-dada-da’s to sing along to.
The first single off Here We Stand, “Mistress Mable”, is one of those songs rehashing former glory, but it doesn’t quite reach “Henrietta” or “Chelsea Dagger” status. The Fratellis still tell you stories about odd, weird and interesting people, but they do it with less wit, less oomph and less nutty lyrics. In fact, all of the rhymes on Here We Stand are horridly predictable and at times even disturbing. Just consider this line: “Tell me where all the days have gone, when you rocked my cradle, tell me, Mabel”.
Verdict: I loved these guys too much the first time around to give them up, but they better warrant my protection of them with a killer third album.
So many prominent victims already and 2008 is only halfway through (although my disappointment with the musical year 2008 is also fuelled by other, non-sophomore albums that sucked)! Still to come are potential let-downs from Cute Is What We Aim For, Jack’s Mannequin, The Fray, Rachael Yamagata, Rob Thomas and more I can’t think of right now.
Or could they possibly be part of the elite few who deliver the second time around? It happens, and I have proof. If not topping their first album, these bands at least held up their respective quality in 2008: Tapes ‘n Tapes, Bullet For My Valentine, Be Your Own Pet, The Raconteurs, and… nope, that’s it so far. Shorter list than I would like.
But rest assured you will find yourself mourning more victims of the Curse of the Sophomore Album in the future, potentially courtesy of these 2008 breakout stars: Vampire Weekend, Duffy, Adele, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, Amy MacDonald, A Fine Frenzy, Born Ruffians and so on and so forth. Here’s to hoping they have their talisman close at hand and can beat the Curse.