Do you remember when we were young and everything seemed possible? Do you remember when the future stretched out into an infinite horizon? When we knew no regret and viewed life as an amusement park of sights, smells and opportunities just waiting to be experienced?
Do you remember when The Hold Steady were just starting out? Do you remember when we heard Separation Sunday and realized the promise shown on Almost Killed Me had come intro fruition? Do you remember when we thrilled to the piano fills on Boys and Girls in America, the sound of a band in full possession of its powers? Do you remember how we thought The Hold Steady was just entering what would be a long and fruitful prime? Do you remember when we heard Stay Positive, and thought it was really good but not quite up to par with the last two? Do you remember hearing that Franz left the band and worrying for its future? Do you remember hearing Heaven is Whenever and realizing those fears were well-founded? Do you remember how we equated The Hold Steady’s career arc with our own mortality?
That last one was just me, huh?
Regardless, the next stage in a once-great band’s decline seems all but assured now that Craig Finn is working on a solo album.
Hey, Craig? That never really seems to work out.
When bands see their initial burst of momentum expire, when they experience that first collective moment of doubt and unease, they often don’t know how to handle it. Their careers to that point have been all upswing, and they can’t cope with creative stagnation, mediocre reviews and shrinking audiences.
In those circumstances, the singer or lead songwriter or lead guitarist often decided to make a solo album. They theorize, and they explain to their bandmates, that the side project will help them out of their creative rut by allowing them to expand their sound or work on songs that don’t fit within the band’s structure. Then, the soloist can come back to the band recharged and ready for a revitalized Act II of the group’s career. But in pop music, as in America, there are no second acts.
And the solo album almost never works, either on its own or as part of its stated purpose to reverse the band’s flagging energy. The best-case scenario is that the breakout solo act turns into something valuable on its own, and the band dies an honest death. More often than not, it’s messier than that.
Look at some prominent examples:
- Mick Jagger and Keith Richard’s solo efforts are mostly worthless (five-star Rolling Stone reviews notwithstanding), and they haven’t prevented the Rolling Stones from putting out garbage like Bridges to Babylon.
- Jenny Lewis’s solo work signaled her disinterest in Rilo Kiley — a disinterest that showed nakedly on the band’s final album.
- Similarly, Julian Casablancas’ Phrazes For The Young is decent, but foreshadowed the situation where he recorded the vocals for The Strokes’ Angles in a different city from where the rest of the band recorded.
- Rhett Miller threatened to beat the trend with his solo debut, The Instigator. Freed from the alt-country confines of the Old 97s, Miller’s natural gift for pop shone through. But his subsequent efforts offered diminishing returns, and the 97s as a unit were unable to stop their precipitous decline.
- Like Miller, Stevie Nicks managed one really good solo album (Wild Heart), but Fleetwood Mac never recovered. Probably due to Lindsey Buckingham’s hurt feelings that her solo album sold better than his.
- Say what you want about The Killers, but their first album is really strong. Brandon Flowers’ solo work, on the other hand, not so much.
- Thom Yorke/The Eraser. No. Nope.
- Eddie Vedder/Just Fucking Around on This Ukulele I Barely Know How to Play. No. Nope.
- Michael Hutchence was in the process of recording his first solo album without his INXS mates. He died while masturbating and hanging from a hotel room ceiling. That’s pretty much the worst-case scenario.
There are a few minor exception, like A.C. Newman and the New Pornographers. Newman’s solo work resembles his stuff with the Pornographers’, just a little slower and with fewer girls singing harmony. But it’s not like his solo albums are must-hear. And examples like that are far outweighed by those that have turned out poorly for all involved.
So music fans — beware. If you hear that your favorite band’s lead singer is working on a solo album, it’s probably time to start looking for a new favorite band. As I am currently doing. Sorry, Craig. I’m not keeping the faith.