Morrissey, The Stone Roses, The Killers, The Strokes, Blur - The Supposed Curse of the Second Album.
Emily Tartanella 03/05/2006
It is often a hopeless case. Diagnosed with ease before the symptoms are even showing, it slowly begins appearing in every facet of the patient's life. To some, it is a negative prognosis instantly -and no medicine can cure it. To others, there may be hope left, if the right treatment is followed. It goes by many scientific names and descriptions, but perhaps it is best known by a simpler term: the second album syndrome.
We know the story so intimately its repetition is almost painful: a fabulous new band sends the press into hysterics, each publication claiming to have “discovered them first.” A handful of stellar singles, and that debut which has everyone dancing/pondering/whatever-infinitive is intended. One whirlwind tour and some very charming young groupies later, the band remembers that they actually need to put out, yes, another album (how cruel a demand!). So they slap together a couple of tunes about “the road” and “discontentment” - maybe it's decent, maybe it's rubbish. But then, when the journos get a hold of the CD, they do what they've been trained and they rip it to shreds. Or that's how the legend goes.
The case histories are infamous; just look at the tremendous starts felled or at least stalled by a disappointing sequel: The Strokes, The Vines, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Television, The Jam, and of course The Darkness (whose recent release reached only a fraction of its predecessor's quadruple platinum success). Some of these bands regrouped but others never escaped the shadow of their initial success. Morrissey himself released a clunker in Kill Uncle, while Alanis Morissette's work has always been viewed unfavourably in comparison to Jagged Little Pill. Even You Could Have it So Much Better, which met with considerable praise, sold only 500,000 copies compared to Franz Ferdinand's 3.5 million. Then there's The Sex Pistols, who self-imploded before ever reaching Here's The Sex Pistols, Again.
But let's look at the mother of them all, the band who personifies the “sophomore slump,” and the band who (apparently) produced the best British album of all time, according to the NME. Yes, that would be the Stone Roses, those boys of baggy, who electrified the world with their eponymous debut, only to seemingly lose it all with Second Coming, an over-long, Led Zeppelin aping misstep. Several factors went into this disappointment, but chief among them were the fantastic expectations. Really, who could follow an album which woke Britain from its techno-slumber to usher in a new age of rock? Furthermore, as opposed to the usual pattern of releasing a sequel shortly after the debut to capitalize on fame, the Roses waited five and-a-half years to release their second album, and by that time Britpop was all the rage. Who wanted to hear a bunch of washed-up dance freaks in the age of Liam Gallagher?
But that brings up a key point of the slump - timeliness. So often, a great first album can begin or even define a musical genre, meaning that the second often has to play catch up. And by that point, the style may be out-of-date or unfashionable. If the Bravery had released their album in the midst of the garage-rock revival of 2002, it might've been seen as revolutionary - but the odds are it would've fallen by the wayside. Instead, catching the Killers' coattails (ala Menswe@r in the mid 1990s) gave these electro-pop posers an extra 15 minutes. Even smart, talented acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Elastica lost some of their edge with a five-year delay, although the former's Show Your Bones has received generally favourable reviews.
Besides the issues of timing and overexposure, second albums fail for other reasons. It's often been said that “you have a lifetime to make your first album, and six months to make the next one.” Clearly The Strokes suffered from an immediate release date, no doubt stemming from industry pressure. Ideas that took years to crystallize and evolve are all poured into that stellar first disc, effectively displaying all your cards in one round. Then there's intra-band tension: a hectic touring schedule and excessive drug use can drive apart even the closest of band members (see The Libertines or Dog Man Star).
But there's more to the difficult second than there appears. Although everyone seems to agree that second albums are generally terrible, they're never clear on the definition of “terrible.” Do they not sell as well? Maybe, but Meat is Murder and (What's the Story) Morning Glory placed higher in the billboard charts than their predecessors. Are they less influential? Occasionally, but Modern Life is Rubbish and Paul's Boutique are seen as essential to their respective genres. Less cohesive? This Year's Model synthesized Costello's vague pub-rock into a punk phenomenon. The problem seems to be not with the music but the hype - try imagining the Arctic Monkeys making an album seen as generation-defining as their debut. Their second album might be decent, even good, but the spectre of What People Say I Am… will always hang over them.
Just as today Room on Fire is no longer seen as an abomination, the second album also improves with time. As memories of early hyperbolic praise fade into the distance, it seems easier to appreciate a genuinely good or even great album. Nowadays Pinkerton is seen as Weezer's masterpiece; on its release Rolling Stone dubbed it the “second worst album of 1996.”
Most bands with terrible follow-ups are quickly forgotten; instead it's the stellar pieces that stay in our consciousness and help create great legacies. In many ways, the belief in a “difficult second album” is often a myth - just look at the success stories: Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain took the lo-fi abstraction of Slanted and Enchanted and added a new level to it. Reckoning by R.E.M. embraced garage pop for an invigorating pop work of genius. Whereas Pablo Honey was overwhelmed by “Creep,” The Bends saw Radiohead evolve into a mature and powerful band. Ash's 1977 made them superstars thanks to singles like “Girl From Mars.” Then there's Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, The Pixies, Queens of the Stone Age, Muse, Gorillaz, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Streets, all of whom either expanded their style or sold more albums.
So now, it's up to the new fellas. 2005 was a great year for music - but debuts in particular. With the Futureheads about to release the follow-up to their brilliant debut, and the Killers threatening to return to our consciousness with a “darker” and “more American” album, the threat of the “second album curse” is all the more relevant. Huge initial splashes like the Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, and Hard-Fi will all be hard-pressed to top their debuts, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. There's just a few things to remember…
Essentially, it you're a talented artist, put enough work into your second release (though not, say, five years of work), lay off the crack, try new styles but don't pull a “reinvention” (hear that, Mr. Flowers?) and stay away from major labels, you'll be fine.
The prognosis, then, is not always negative.