Spoon released its sixth LP, Transference, this week, and early reviews are positive. If Transference lives up to Spoon’s lofty standards, that would make six out of six very-good-to-great albums for Britt Daniels and company. How many active bands can claim that kind of streak to start their careers? Hell, how many bands in history have come out with six consecutive good albums?
Longevity has been a difficult thing to attain for pop artists since the advent of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Continued excellence has been even more elusive.
I have two questions: 1) Why is it so hard for bands to stay great for long? and 2) How much do the artificial constraints we impose on bands affect their longevity?
The rock canon, as defined by the white, male, rock critic establishment, offers two different versions of the ideal pop music career, two different paragons for artists to emulate. The first is the Beatles. Whether they admit it to themselves or not, rock critics compare every new band to the Beatles, and their best hope for a band they love is that their career will follow the same path as the Liverpudlians’. Start out good, young, fresh, energetic; then grow over time, learn, evolve, experiment, incorporate different sounds. Build up to your masterpiece. Then burn out when you have nothing left to give. See also: Radiohead.
The second paragon is Bob Dylan. Singer-songwriters are allowed to follow in Dylan’s footsteps, along with the occasional group. This path is the long and winding road, as opposed to the Beatles’ trek straight up a mountain. The Dylan artist is allowed more leeway, more room for mistakes and idiosyncrasies. His missteps are chalked up to an artist’s temperament. There needn’t be a natural progression, as long as there’s always change, always an assurance that he’s exploring his muse to the fullest. When Dylan sidles into his Christian phase, or when Neil Young does whatever the fuck he was doing in the ‘80s, patience is shown because we know the artist will find his way back to us. This path is reserved for a precious few artists – most bands are expected to the Beatles rather than Dylan. See also: Young, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison.
Very few artists in history fit neatly into either category. But every band suffers for critics’ attempts to stuff them into one of those boxes. David Fricke and Dave Marsh and Jann Wenner and Robert Christgau are always standing off to the side, casting their version of the male gaze on bands that sputter through a bad album or that hang on too long past their primes. Assessing. Judging.
And this mentality impacts all of us. We’ve been taught to think about rock bands in a certain way. And bands have been taught how they’re expected to grow and behave. We’ve been taught these things by The Beatles and Dylan, yes, but mostly we’ve been taught them by Rolling Stone and Spin and Jazz & Pop and Pitchfork.
We don’t like it when bands come out with more than two or three albums in a row that sound similar. At the very least, we grow bored, and slide them down our Top 10 lists.
We love the departure album. We also love the late-career back-to-basics album.
We don’t like it when bands change based on our reactions. The growth must be organic.
We don’t like it when bands stay together too long after they’ve stopped being culturally relevant. In the same way that it made us sad to see Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform, it makes us sad to see The Rolling Stones singing duets with Christina Aguilera on an IMAX screen. We think it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
We like it when bands sound like other bands we love, but we hate it when they sound too much like them.
We hate it when bands piggyback on a current music trend that doesn’t naturally fit their style. Except for sometimes, when we like it.
We’ve created a toxic culture that’s made it more difficult for pop artists to achieve long-term creative success. Recent generations have missed out on the opportunity to grow up with a band, at least for a little while. If you were born in 1967, you could grow up with R.E.M. or U2, and track your life’s milestones with their albums and tours. If you were born in 1977, you could grow old with….the Dave Matthews Band? The diminishing returns of Pearl Jam? No thanks. I’d rather grow old alone.
Bands tend to break up early anyway. That’s just what they do. But the inner rock critics in all of us help accelerate the process. Bands are scared not to fit into our preconceived ideas of what they should be. Most bands are scared to come out with multiple albums in a row with the same sound – even if it’s a great sound, even if it’s their sound.
Why do musicians have a prime and a post-prime the same way that athletes do? Athletes’ bodies change, their skills fade. You don’t need huge muscles or blazing speed to sing or play guitar or, most importantly, write. Sure, there’s some hand-eye coordination and dexterity involved with playing a lot of instruments, but there are a lot of great blues and rock guitarists in their 60s and 70s. And Bruce Springsteen still has the stamina to play three-hour shows 40 years into his career. It’s not a decline in musicianship or physical ability that causes bands to fall, it’s a loss of inspiration. At some point, the songs just aren’t there anymore.
I’m sure Eric Clapton can still play a killer solo. But he isn’t writing another “Layla.”
Let’s take a look at the careers of some great bands to see how they’ve held up over time, and how much our expectations have played a role in the arc of their careers. It’s not worth examining any artists from the pre-Beatles era, or whose careers ran concurrently with the Beatles, because the Beatles established our paradigm. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m also only interested in artists who at least aspire to greatness.
The Beatles – As mentioned, the ideal. I’m not a Beatles fan, per se, but I recognize their greatness, their influence, and their importance. And it is pretty fucking incredible that they went from Love Me Do to Sgt. Pepper’s/Let It Be/Abbey Road.
The Rolling Stones – The poster boys for hanging on too long. They took a few years to find their footing, but then produced one of the greatest stretches in music history from 1968 – 1973 with Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street and Goats Head Soup. David Simon Cowell is fond of saying that we’d all be better off if Jagger and Richards had died in a plane crash after Some Girls, and despite a weakness for Emotional Rescue and Voodoo Lounge, he’s right. It’s not just that the Stones stopped evolving, it’s that they started aggressively sucking.
The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed – The Velvets survived potentially crippling lineup changes to produce three classic albums, then gently morphed into Lou Reed’s solo career. Reed’s been very up and down, and has been granted a lot of leeway under the Dylan corollary. He’s clearly run out of steam the last 10 years, but he also came out with New York when everyone thought he was washed up.
R.E.M. – Began their career with a ridiculous 10 straight good albums, depending on your opinion of Monster, then essentially collapsed once Bill Berry left. They stuck as close to the Beatles template as anybody this side of U2: started their run with a few albums that established their sound, then pushed the limits of that sound until their departure album (Out of Time). Could they have kept their run going if Berry had stayed, or had they exhausted their creativity?
U2 – The Irish R.E.M., only without the lineup change. After their departure (Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop) and the return to form (All That You Can’t Leave Behind), they seemed to have nowhere else to go. It’s difficult not to think that The Beatles themselves would have followed the U2/R.E.M. career path had they stayed together.
David Bowie – See Lou Reed.
The Pixies – Broke up right at the cusp of an extended run at greatness.
Pavement – Ditto, but had already plainly peaked several years prior.
Counting Crows – Five albums in, it would be easy to mark the weak Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings as the beginning of the end, but the Counting Crows don’t seem like a band who will give up after a bad album, and they don’t seem likely to force unneeded change into their music.
The Strokes – A classic example of a band that hit the outer limits of their sound while facing external pressure to switch gears.
Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – A band that keeps plugging along, and perhaps their last two albums have been judged unfairly for that fact. No they don’t sound all that different from Hearts of Oak. Does it matters?
Guns N Roses –What does it say that one of the most important bands of the past 30 years only came out with one great album? A testament to the destructive powers of band dynamics and pure psychosis.
Metallica – Essentially Pearl Jam with a longer build up. They refined their style until they exploded commercially, then retreated into “doing what we do,” only not as well as before. Thinking about Metallica and GNR brings up an interesting side note, first pointed out by Dave Marsh in Glory Days: how many artists have stared down spectacular commercial success and not retreated, fallen apart, or sold out completely? I’m not talking about Vampire Weekend-hitting-number-one-on-Billboard kind of success. I’m talking about stadium-filling, girls-screaming, lose-track-of-how-much-money-you-have kind of success. Springsteen: retreated (followed Born in the USA with Tunnel of Love, then disbanded the E Streeters). Prince: fell apart (broke up the Revolution, came out with some terrible albums, changed his name to a symbol). U2: sold out (although U2 was always about attaining the most popularity they possibly could). Led Zeppelin: fell apart (Bonham died and the band broke up). Nirvana: fell apart (duh). Pearl Jam: retreated (stopped making videos and promoting their albums, intentionally wrote non-commercial dreck). Even the Beatles dealt with success by taking wild left turns. Has anyone ever looked this monster and the eye and said, “Fuck you, I want more of this,” and then gotten even better? This phenomenon may be irrelevant, as it remains to be seen if any artists not discovered on American Idol can achieve this level of success anymore.
There are several modern bands who have gotten off to fantastic starts to their careers, but it’s too early to tell where they’ll ultimately head: Spoon, The White Stripes, Arcade Fire, The Shins, LCD Soundsystem, etc. In the MP3 era, it seems more difficult than ever to string together a long run of success, perhaps because music culture is so fragmented that commercial and financial success is harder to attain. And hip hop is another case entirely – despite some long, impressive careers (Jay-Z), the concept of the album has less historical import in hip hop, so it’s impossible to judge rappers by the same standards as rock bands.
It wasn’t that long ago that I thought Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon and the Old 97s had potential to be great bands for a long time. And those artists haven’t fallen off because of our expectations, they just started to suck. So the jury’s still out on every band that has three albums or less to their credit.
The rock-critic mentality has combined with our “what’s next?” culture to create an atmosphere where we’re all sitting around waiting for our favorite bands to fuck up, to jump the shark, so that we can be the first ones off the bandwagon. Let’s stop that, guys.
If a band puts out a shitty album or two, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all over (I’m looking at you, Wilco). If a band doesn’t evolve as much as we think they should, maybe that’s our fault, not the band’s (Hey, New Pornographers, what’s up?). Let’s give everything a little more time to breathe.
It’s why I have such high hopes for Spoon. They’ve made subtle changes without totally overhauling everything. They’ve incorporated weird songs like “I Turn My Camera On” and “The Ghost of You Lingers” into albums that still sound like Spoon. They’ve grown without changing. I’m worried that fans and critics will start to get frustrated if Spoon just keeps on trucking, and that in turn will affect Spoon’s output. I’d be happy with ten more albums that sound a lot like the first six, if they’re of that quality. The odds are against Spoon remaining a creative force that long, sure (although improved slightly by the fact that Britt Daniels is clearly Spoon; it’s not really a band band), but someone’s gotta be our R.E.M.