Friday, November 14, 2008

Why does every great, long-lived rock band lose their greatness?

The phenomenon seems too widespread to deny: if you're a great band/artist who plays any kind of rock or pop music, and if you stay around for more than a few years, at some point you're going to lose your greatness. You might keep playing fantastic shows for decades, but only by heavily relying on your old material.

Just a few examples: the individual Beatles after the first couple solo albums from John, Paul, and George. Stevie Wonder after Songs in the Key of Life. Prince after Lovesexy. U2 after Achtung Baby. The Smashing Pumpkins after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Nine Inch Nails after The Downward Spiral.

And there's an alarming number of great bands from the current decade whose most recent albums have exhibited a dramatic drop in standards: Death Cab for Cutie (Narrow Stairs), The Arcade Fire (Neon Bible), Rilo Kiley (Under the Blacklight), Dresden Dolls (Yes, Virginia), Spoon (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), and — I know some people strongly disagree with this — Radiohead (In Rainbows).

I would have added Of Montreal to that list when Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer? was their most recent album. But they have a new one out, Skeletal Lamping.

You can hear a full Of Montreal concert, with lots of songs from the new album, by going to this article and click the "hear the concert" link near the top of the page.

I love this band, so I was excited to see they had a new concert online. But looking over the set list (available at the same link), I was disappointed at how few songs they played from their 3rd and 4th most recent albums, The Sunlandic Twins and Satanic Panic in the Attic. You can hear the songs from those albums — which in my opinion are the highlights of the concert — by skipping ahead to these points:

  • 4:40
  • 32:30
  • 43:50
  • 1:02:00
  • 1:41:30
As of this posting, you can hear Of Montreal's new album, more or less in its entirety, for free at their MySpace profile (tracks 1-15).

Their last two albums have a lot of the qualities that are all too common in past-their-prime rock bands: the music is, if anything, slightly more accomplished on a technical level, but it sounds like they ran out of ideas and tried to make up for it by doing a really good imitation of themselves.

As one example, "A Sentence of Sorts from Kongsvinger" (from Hissing Fauna...) sounds like they decided to scrounge through their previous album (The Sunlandic Twins) looking for hooks to piece together into a new song. (You can hear the song starting at 1:28:50 in the concert.) It's not bad, but it's sort of disillusioning, like watching a documentary on how they did the special effects in a movie.

So . . . what happens? Is it that the pressure of success makes them too self-conscious to come up with spontaneous ideas? Or is there just a certain age when rock musicians lose their magic, and one day, all they can come up with is well-intentioned fluff like . . .


Jeff Vaca said...

I think it might have to do as much with the listener as it does with the artist. Sure, there's no arguing that any Beatles solo album past 1972 is worth even mentioning in the same breath as the sixties classics, but on the other hand, each individual listener selects in their own mind the standard by which all future works shall be judged. Using Stevie Wonder as an example, you identified "Songs in the Key of Life" as the gold standard. I would agree with that 100%, but then I would ask whether it was really reasonable, if we can accept that "Key of Live" was his masterpiece, that he would ever equal it again? I don't think he did, but I also think that "Hotter than July" and "Skeletons" are outstanding albums, and that he's had outstanding cuts on all of the albums he's released since then.

I also suspect it has something to do with the album through which a listener was introduced to a band. For example, I would take strong exception to your characterization of "Neon Bible" and "Under the Blacklight" as a "dramatic drop in standards." It may be because those were the first albums I heard by Arcade Fire and Rilo Kiley, but I thought they were great - wonderful work, and nothing I've heard since then (and I've bought them all) has matched them in my own mind.

It's an interesting topic - good post.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Sometimes a band can keep its creativity alive through the addition of new personnel - the Byrds are an example -- but that may only support the general principle.

John Althouse Cohen said...


I don't think Hotter than July is anywhere near the level of Stevie Wonder's earlier albums. So if that's a standout of his later period, then to me that only confirms the point.

Notice that the song "No Cars Go" from Neon Bible is really from their EP that came out before their first album. The fact that the overwhelming highlight of Neon Bible was a rehash from earlier in their career says a lot. If you take that song off the album, I think "My Body is a Cage" is pretty good, but the rest just don't have the spark and intensity of their first album, Funeral.

As far as your comment that "I also suspect it has something to do with the album through which a listener was introduced to a band" -- I was born in 1981. Stevie Wonder, Prince, and the Beatles are all people whose music I've had to approach as basically complete bodies of work, with no sense of eagerly anticipating what direction they might take with their new album. So I don't think I have the bias of eventually getting tired of their formulas and moving onto something new.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Another possibility: the first album is almost by definition a breakthrough for a band. They've been working for years, polishing their songs and style through trial and error, devoting every ounce of care, love, and ambition to their demos. For the second album, they already have a contract, they feel as if they have the luxury of acceptance (often an illusion), and the company is telling them, "We want the next one by September." They don't even have new songs yet, and time pressure makes for hasty composing. It's a very different situation.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I think that's a very good explanation for the "sophomore slump," but that's specifically about a new band/artist. That can't explain the solo Beatles, Prince, U2, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.

Anonymous said...

Jac, I hope you realize there's backward masking on that video. As a matter of fact, all the music videos you've posted, every Friday, have reverse satanic messages when I've played them backward.

You should be more careful about what you endorse, or at least do some reverse analysis to see if there's any backward masking, and satanic messages.

I really don't wanna believe that you'd use your blog to intentionally promote Satan !

Agnostic Monk said...

How can you not love In Rainbows??? And I will possess your heart is the best song by Death Cab For Cutie.

Agnostic Monk said...

And you are wrong about Nine Inch Nails too. Year Zero is stellar. As good as anything Trent's ever done. In fact he doesn't have a weak album anywhere in the catalog.
I discovered Spoon with Ga Ga Ga Ga and worked my way backwards through their catalog. And Spoon is very consistent start to finish. But my favourite Spoon song is The Beast and Dragon Adored.

Agnostic Monk said...

Testament (Thrash Metal) band made their best album in 1999 called The Gathering. They started in the middle eighties and went through a few line-up changes in the nineties.

John Althouse Cohen said...

How can you not love In Rainbows???

I'm going to talk about this in a future blog post -- it's too complex to get into here. For now I'll just say I was extremely disappointed.

And I will possess your heart is the best song by Death Cab For Cutie.

"The best"? No. It's not even at the level of any of the songs from their previous two albums, Plans and Transatlanticism. I Will Possess Your Heart sounds like Death Cab aimlessly jamming to get warmed up in the studio -- which might have been cool as a B-side or something, but it's pretty embarrassing for the lead single.

And you are wrong about Nine Inch Nails too. Year Zero is stellar.

Admittedly, I haven't heard that album. When I say they went downhill after The Downward Spiral, I'm basing that on The Fragile and With Teeth. After hearing those, I lost interest in hearing any more of NIN's newer work. The Fragile in particular was completely devoid of everything that used to make NIN great -- I listened to the first of the 2 CDs and gave up on it.

Testament (Thrash Metal) band made their best album in 1999 called The Gathering. They started in the middle eighties and went through a few line-up changes in the nineties.

I haven't really heard them, so I can't judge if they're a "great" band. Note that my post is only about bands that have achieved "greatness" to begin with, which excludes most bands.

sonicfrog said...

My band Chris Plays Guitar anticipated this phenomenon and built the fade to suckiness right into our catalogue. The first album was called "I Like Their Old Stuff Better". It was all down hill from their.

Bissage said...

Why does every great, long-lived rock band lose their greatness?

Drugs and alcohol.

Either too much or too little.

sonicfrog said...

It was all down hill from there.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I love this comment that was just posted here, which I deleted:

"Cool article you got here. I'd like to read more about that theme. The only thing it would also be great to see on this blog is some pics of some devices."

(This was followed by a link.)

OK, I'll make sure to post some pics of some devices, if that's what you want.