August 14, 2013 by NowhereButPop
Okay, so a hypothetical band’s debut album, let’s call them “Band H,” opens to critical and commercial acclaim (think Boston, Guns N’ Roses, Arcade Fire, and so on), and now they’re on the brink of rock greatness. It’s all going to come to their follow-up album. That’s nearly always the most important album. Zeppelin II, Hunky Dory, Ram (for McCartney’s solo career). But it’s also where really promising bands have failed: Dawes’ Nothing Is Wrong, Cold War Kids, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Mumford & Sons. The list goes on and on. For every Chutes Too Narrow and Helplessness Blues, there’s a Babel.
Music today, especially today, has a second album problem. And I don’t want to be yet another person bemoaning the current status of the music industry, because I love where music is currently. There’s an insane number of good bands today, either climbing the charts or hustling from club to club in Brooklyn or rural nowheres. But there’s a second album problem and I can’t ignore it. Blame record companies’ desire for a predictable bottom line, or even blame bands’ own fear of being pushed back into obscurity, but increasingly, bands are taking absolutely zero risk on their hotly anticipated follow-up albums. It’s far from shocking considering where we are today culturally.
A few important developments have taken hold:
1) The music industry is in decline, and just as Hollywood seeks recognizable brands, in remake, sequel, or graphic novel form, so too does music. They want hypothetical “Band H” to make an album that sounds exactly like everything Band H has done previously. And why not? It sold before, and it’ll sell again. Of course this isn’t true. People buy good music or go see it live, they don’t pay for the brand alone, something the movie industry is slowly learning. People pay for Christopher Nolan and Joss Whedon, not the shitpile that was Green Lantern.
2) Band H spent a lot of years crafting their own sound, and a lot of other bands have sort of similar sounds. And there are A LOT of new bands out there that people now have easy access to, between Youtube, Bandcamp, and the like. How different does Hanni El Khatib really sound from The Black Keys? The solution is to stay steadfast to the sound they spent so long developing, to stay inside the box, but only so people recognize their box as theirs, and not Kings of Leon’s.
Some combination of these two has created a major issue. Because it means we’re basically getting the same albums from bands over and over again. Mumford & Sons’ Babel, Edward Sharpe’s Here, and subsequently their self-titled third album, they’re all fine. They aren’t bad. But they don’t do anything. Edward Sharpe does what Edward Sharpe does, with minimal growth or development. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Look at Arcade Fire, or Fleet Foxes, or Best Coast, or going back a ways, The Shins. Their second albums did just the right amount the same and the right amount different. Those follow-ups solidified their greatness. Fleet Foxes can disappear off the face of the Earth, and Robin Pecknold can go full-on JD Salinger-esque recluse in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. But twenty years from now, we’ll still be listening to those albums.
But who would I be if I didn’t propose an ideal, the most batshit crazy, most overlooked second album in pop/rock history: Panic At the Disco’s Pretty. Odd.
It’s a travesty that the album doesn’t get discussed even remotely as much as it should. The jump from their debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, to Pretty. Odd. is the most concurrently high-profile and overlooked image turnaround since teen heartthrob/pretty boy Johnny Depp went full Tim Burton muse in the 90s. Panic’s 2005 debut spent 66 weeks on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum. It was the peak of the emo/pop punk thing, with bands like Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and The Academy Is hitting it big. Panic’s debut was pretty typical of the genre and the time – generic pop punky guitars, some lonely yelping, and misguided yet harmless attempts at wit (the song title “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom And Suicide Is Press Coverage”). Needless to say, I wrote them off.
Then few years passed and they released Pretty. Odd. in 2008. I heard the single “Nine In The Afternoon,” which I thought was okay. Finally a friend suggested the whole album. “Trust me,” she said, “you’ll like it. The whole album’s not like that.” Obliging her, I listened. And the whole album is not like that. It’s fucking fantastic.
The album is theatrical and hopeful, moving through genre after genre with ease, all while staying true whatever it is they do. I dare anyone to not become immediately happier after hearing “That Green Gentleman” with its catchy chorus, acoustic guitars, and town hall-esque tolling bells. It’s just a great pop song. And then we move into “I Have Friends in Holy Spaces,” played on ukulele, with background horns and clarinet, all made to sound as if it’s being played on vinyl. OH. And then the ending segues into “Northern Downpour,” one of the most beautiful and underrated pop ballads I’ve ever heard. The album is more Beatles, Kinks, and late 60s Who than Fall Out Boy. And I still haven’t even mentioned the harmonica and fiddle-tinged folk celebration that is “Folkin’ Around.” Or the harpsichord on “She Had The World.” It’s essentially the exact opposite of their debut, with its expected emo pop, generic electric guitars, and weird forays into electronica. Pretty. Odd. feels like a genuine passion project, spanning decades of styles and influences while retaining the band’s pop punk origins.
Yet as much as I love the album, I obviously wouldn’t propose all bands follow the same path. Every band doing complete musical 180s for their second album? That would be terrible. Dawes doesn’t need to go putting out an album with harpsichords and handclaps. But they need to do something different, to challenge themselves, to challenge their fans. Bob Dylan didn’t solidify his legacy with The Times They Are a-Changin’; he did it with Blonde on Blonde.
So the specifics of Pretty. Odd. aren’t too important, as much as I love talking about them. The key is in the attitude, the desire to push oneself to do things differently, to grow. And there are plenty of recent bands that have accomplished as much. Of course none as overtly as Panic at the Disco. But hell, even Panic couldn’t do it anymore after Pretty. Odd. Their third album, Vices & Virtues, was a hollow attempt to recapture the magic of their second album minus their main songwriter, Ryan Ross. And then this summer, well, they released this. But who am I to argue with nearly 3 million views?
I’m not saying all hope is lost. It very clearly is not. My apprehension comes from the fact that I’ve heard so many amazing debut albums over the last few years. So I admit it, I’m excited and hopeful, but I’m also afraid. There’s a trend that seems to only be growing. More and more, the biggest bands seem to be retreating inside the box, with the security blanket of their expected sounds. So yeah, I love Alabama Shakes, but I’m already disappointed by their second album.