Sophomore albums – why are they so daunting?
By Sam Clark (he/him)
It’s often said that the second album is the hardest, especially after a successful debut. Known as the ‘sophomore slump’, this phenomenon has been used to describe everything from football seasons, to the apathy of second-year uni students. The same can be said for authors, directors and other creatives. They all face the same challenge. How can you possibly follow-up after making Unknown Pleasures, The Virgin Suicides or Catcher in the Rye? J.D Salinger actually went off the grid after that one. As if making an album isn’t hard enough on its own.
When looking at second albums, we have to keep in mind that the LP is not what it used to be. In the good old, bad old days, LPs were the most economical way to release music because you could fit ten songs onto one disk. Now, they’re respected as a medium of themselves and they’re an essential part of the popular music psyche. Then you’ve got the concept album, where tracks hold a greater meaning as a whole. Think: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. More recent examples are Julia Jacklin’s Crushing, Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy and Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps. You can also see these big concepts in some of this year’s popular releases, like Harry Styles’ Harry’s House, Kendrick Lamar’s Mr Morale and The Big Steppers and Charlie XCX’s Crash. So, we know that there’s more to an album than a random collection of songs. They hold a lot of artistic value.
However, in the streaming era, the music industry isn’t anywhere near as dependent on selling physical albums. This means singles and EPs are given a lot more emphasis - a trend which began in the 90s, with MTV. This gives way to artists releasing a lot more singles before their album comes out. Big Thief put out eight singles from Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, which is about half of the album. And Marlon Williams put out five singles before My Boy came out the other week – compared to just one for Make Way for Love in 2018. This may not be indicative of a major trend, but it is interesting to think about. What does it mean for the project as a whole? In saying that, it's important to keep in mind that artists are forced to base the success of an album on how much money it makes.
The music industry doesn’t necessarily value innovation or experimentation to the same extent. Kudos if it works out, but if not - it could be detrimental to your career. In an interview from the late 80s, Frank Zappa says the problem with the music industry is the “hip young executives” who, despite being cool, are actually “conservative and dangerous to the art form”. Whereas, the “cigar-chomping old-guys” - who were in charge back in the day - were more likely to take a chance on something a bit more edgy. His scorn of the industry is in typical Zappa fashion and you can probably take this comment with a grain of salt. But he raises an important point. There are parts of the music industry that are inherently opposed to new ideas. This makes things pretty tricky for artists, especially when working on a big project. Thankfully, the internet has democratised releasing music in some ways. We have groups like Car Seat Headrest coming up on Bandcamp - which was Will Toledo’s way of creating experimental music anonymously. No cigar guy needed.
Today, the streaming era poses new set of challenges for artists - on top of an industry that doesn’t really have their best interests at heart. Head of NZ on Air, David Ridler says that the real product of Spotify is their algorithm “Spotify isa tech company, that uses music to draw an audience... it’s really the technology that they’re selling.” This can lead to some pretty dire consequences, as Charlotte Ryan, host of RNZ Music 101 explains “I'm really concerned that musicians will get distracted and start producing music to fit into an algorithm”. I spoke to UoA Music and Computer Science academic, Dr Fabio Morreale last year for another story. He explained how Spotify’s A.I analyses how listeners interact with music, like when they skip, save a track, or turn up the volume. They then send this data to artists, so they can ‘improve’, but again - it’s within Spotify’s idea of success. Artists now have this added hurdle, where they’re ‘encouraged’ to make music that fits into an algorithm.
Perhaps the most infamous sophomore album is The Stone Roses’ aptly named Second Coming. It received mixed reviews at the time of its release, but since then it has been widely hailed as one of the best albums of the 90s. British press speculated that the five-year gap from their self-titled debut album had made them doubt themselves. It had also been about five years since they’d been on tour. As their guitarist, John Squier said cheekily in an interview with the LA Times “Five years is just the blink of a geological eye." Artists experience immense pressure to release more material, but it’s within the constraints of the music industry. The band were struggling to get out of a previous record deal, which resulted in a huge lawsuit. It’s the perfect example of how besides the artistic challenges, musicians must also face the shitshow that is record deals, pretty abysmal compensation and these days, Covid restrictions affecting touring and live shows.
Second Coming was also a huge sonic departure from their self-titled debut. Leaning into their heavier, psychedelic and even funk-rock tendencies, the album is very groove-orientated, with big solos and bluesy riffs. They said goodbye to the dreamy, jangly guitars of their debut, which attracted some harsh criticism. One particularly negative review from The Independent called it the one of the worst career decisions in the history of rock music. People sure do get upset when a band takes a new direction, or tries something new. It’s a bit of a catch-22, as re-doing what worked well on their first album isn’t really an option either.
Sophomore albums are a huge undertaking and pressure from the industry makes them that much harder. In many ways, executives are against artists getting experimental and streaming has added another layer of complexity, with algorithms that persuade artists to make music a certain way. It’s this crazy to think about musicians handling all of this, while achieving an artistic vision at the same time. Despite all this, the album lives on.