What's all this talk about records not being as good as their predecessors? This nonsense about, "well, it's good but it's not as good as their last record?" Or, "it's not good enough?"
I constantly talk about the pros and cons of the internet when it comes to music. Pro: well, bands who would never, ever be heard can be heard because of the internet. Con: some bands who shouldn't be heard can be heard too. But I think the internet is also responsible for this recent phenomenon of perfect (or really fucking good) debut albums. I'm talking about Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, etc. Bands are being hyped right out of the gate, which is fine, but over all detrimental. They have to follow up those perfect records eventually. And they're only setting themselves up for ridiculously high expectations and disappointed fans. As I sit here, I am trying to think of a second album that was as good as a hyped debut (or better) and I think I can only come up with Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
But what about following up the record that propelled you into public consciousness? (By "public," I mean indie music blogs and website, but you knew that, right?) I'm pretty sure that's not a particularly easy task, and sometimes artists can improve on those records (i.e St. Vincent, Sufjan Stevens) but more often that not, I hear fans says, "Well, it's good but it's not as good as their last record." Which leads me to wonder if it is possible to ever judge a record objectively. Is musical discourse always about comparisons? I mean, we constantly compare artists to one another but have we gotten to this point where we are actually comparing bands to themselves?
So many of the reviews of Titus Andronicus' Local Business have begun with something along the lines of, "Well, it's good but it's not as good as The Monitor." The Monitor was a once-in-a-career record and a true masterpiece. It's mind-blowing that a band that young could put out such a perfect record that clicked on all cylinders. It was one of, if not my favorite record of 2010. (I go back and forth between it and LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening. Talk about two killer opening tracks.) It was momentous, but also a concept record. Would I have been really, really happy if Titus Andronicus put out a record just like The Monitor? Of course. But did I expect it? Of course not. And if anyone did, they're just silly. (Boy, this is like my Centipede Hz argument all over again.) But that didn't mean I was going to accept a shitty record. Putting out a perfect record doesn't excuse a terrible one. Well, the first time I heard "In a Big City," I wasn't impressed (save the Hamlet reference). I didn't really care for "Still Life With Hot Deuce on a Silver Platter" either (but I've since learned to really like those tracks) so it didn't bode well for the rest of the record. I was prepared to be let down by one of my favorite new bands. I couldn't even get past the first two tracks when I streamed the whole record on NPR. But eventually I came around to Local Business. It is a good, solid record. No, it isn't The Monitor. But you know, if it was a similar record, people would say they are one-note. If they attempted another record like The Monitor, and failed, they would get called out for that too. The Monitor is ambitious and instead of trying to top it, they were ambitious yet again for putting out a different type of record. Patrick Stickles is still a very strong songwriter, and an even stronger lyricist, and that makes it clear that this record's sound deliberate and not, as many people think, a step down from The Monitor. Different doesn't mean bad, especially since Local Business is a solid record. Titus Andronicus does something very few bands do: they make straight-up rock and roll that doesn't need any excuses. I love Japandroids' Celebration Rock (one of my favorite releases of the year so far) but I've heard too many people say, "it doesn't need to have strong lyrics because that's not the point of the record." If you like solid rock, check out Local Business.
I think Local Business teaches us that it's probably better to have no expectations, which is why the best records, for me at least, tend to be the ones by bands I never gave a second thought to (I didn't like Post-Nothing when it was released and still don't love it but I love Celebration Rock, for example). If we just expect solid records from our favorite bands, maybe there won't be anymore records that aren't "good enough."