Saturday, April 05, 2008

Monday Music Post - The Maligned 2nd Album

The second album is a tricky thing, especially when the first is successful. The playing field tilts from the impact of expectations, which are in most cases absent for any band's debut (although there are clear exceptions to this - see Velvet Revolver). Any band's successful debut is followed by a crushing cycle of touring/adulation/backlash, and after the tornado survives the band is invariably in the position of waking up, looking around, and wondering: where the hell is my house, and why are there pieces of half of the neighborhood in my former front lawn? A debut album carries all of the pent-up energy and craft of the long series of songwriting sessions, rehearsals, bonding, arguments, etc. over the long lifespan of the band from first gathering to album unleashing. The second album is often written hastily, often on tour - ye gods how I dread to read an interview with the chief songwriter of a band with one album down talking about how they've gotten a lot of really good songs written on "the road" - and often is either directly or indirectly narcissistic: informed more by the tornado of fame than by the truths of the everyday that great music contains.

This is a well-worn narrative, and a cliche. Because so many 2nd albums follow this pattern, it's automatic to assume that all 2nd albums will follow it until the end of time. To name some albums that fall into this category: The Strokes - Room on Fire, The Breeders - Last Splash (yes, Cannonball is one of the best songs of the last 20 years; the album is not that great), Bush - Razorblade Suitcase, No Doubt - Return to Saturn, Nas - It Was Written, Guns N Roses - Use Your Illusion (10 great songs, 10 tons of filler), Kanye West - Graduation, other suggestions welcome.

Often, though, the 2nd album is where the band's vision comes through to fruition, and makes the first album look like a blueprint in retrospect, while the follow-up seems like the completed building. For a set of these albums, see: Nirvana, Nevermind vs. Bleach, Pixies Surfer Rosa vs. Doolittle, Whiskeytown, Stranger's Almanac vs. Faithless St., Wilco, Being There vs. AM. This path has just as venerable a tradition (if not more so), but because of the quick-response critical culture that has arisen with the Internet there isn't really room in the critical mass to take this wait-and-see approach. Overall critical momentum in an instant-response climate excels at hyping up a new band, but is not as great at sticking with a band's development. The known quantity is always less sexy, less interesting than the potential of the great unknown.

This does a critical disservice to those bands that get it right the second time around; like the first-time novelist, they've already gotten their shot to impress. Case in point: the Darkness. Catsuit wearing lead singer, ridiculously awesome video for "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" (seriously - they fight a killer octopus with laser guitars. Music videos reach no higher pinnacle), and a set of songs that mash castrato Queen-style vocals to Van Halen-channeling guitar rock songs. In concept: genius, and no wonder that they were hyped to the stars.

Still and all, with the exception of "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," the first Darkness album is all sound, no song. It's as if once they decided on the stylistic outlines of the band, they filled the songs in by numbers. So you get an opener like "Black Shuck", a ragin' rockin' song about a killer dog that, technically speaking, "rocks", but doesn't really have a memorable vocal melody or hummable guitar riff, and boils down to more of an overall sound than a song. It's got all of the jackhammer energy of the '80s glam rock they clearly idealize, but that's about it. Energy will only take you so far; at a certain point you need a damn hook.

The chief error, to my ear, of the Darkness's debut is that they attempted to land by the wrong guiding lights. The sonic fury of "Permission to Land" has the clinical, mechanical drive of early Van Halen - rock 'n' roll with the blues surgically removed and replaced by a kind of punk-driven abrasiveness. It's easy to hear what the band is going for, it's just as easy to hear that they don't get there, and it has to do with the frontman discrepancy. Early Van Halen works because Eddie's terrifying, mechanical guitar perfection wrestles with Roth's carnival barker vocals. DLR can't really "sing" all that well, but his flesh-and-blood carnival barker energetic imperfection meshes perfectly with Eddie's bloodless guitar mastery.

Justin Hawkins, of the Darkness's ear-slicing falsetto, has a vocal instrument that's a lot closer to Eddie's guitar in tone and temperament, so wedding it to driving punk/metal tracks just robs the album of an entrance point - listening to it is like trying to climb up a glass wall. Sometimes polished rock perfection works to, well, perfection (Def Leppard: exhibits A-Z), but in this case it results in an album that brings to mind a dentists drill.

Still and all, a successful album, a hit, and all that. So when they released "One Way Ticket to Hell and Back" there wasn't a whole lot of critical evaluation of the Darkness's musical evolution.

Listen to any of the tracks off of "One Way Ticket" though, and it's clear that with one simple philosophical frame shift, the Darkness have exponentially improved their music. Namely, they started imitating Queen. The punk abrasiveness and dentists-drill texture is all gone: what takes its place is the air quote laden glam rock whose closest kin is a song like "Fat Bottomed Girls". The harmonies are emphasized, the guitar tones are softened, and the solos are constructed out of more melodic patterns instead of amp-to-11 blooze-runs. And did I mention the harmonies? They're awesome, and Justin Hawkins has the soprano to stand toe-to-toe with Freddie M. Queen is a better fit, too, because Hawkins has a songwriting sensibility that's closer to Freddie's camp showmanship than it is to Diamond Dave's blunt carnival barker's.

Just as Freddie singing "Fat Bottomed Girls" as the most ineffectively closeted man in a band called Queen could possibly be is an act of irony, so too is the Darkness writing a sweet song about a girlfriend's new hairstyle and calling it "Knockers". Both songs dutifully hit the required caveman-stomp notes of glam rock while pointing out the reductiveness of such attitudes though the irreconcilable contrasts of context (Freddie's homosexuality, "Knockers"'s fundamental sweetness) with content (the misogyny/objectification in the lyrics/titles of each song). Both songs, meanwhile, pull off these contrasts within the 3-minute microcosm of melodic glam rock stompers whose chief musical foundation is a catchy vocal melody. And not incidentally, both songs feature incredible and incredibly cheesy harmonies in the chorus. Seriously, the vocal harmonies have to be heard to be believed.

The reward of this strategy are all over "One Way Ticket to Hell and Back", and it's a stronger and more interesting album for it. So, if you wrote the Darkness off after Permission to Land, give the 2nd album a go. It's a different beast entirely, disguised with the same skin. Also, for all the critical assumptions that the Darkness didn't "mean it", just look at what ultimately destroyed the band. Justin Hawkins's cocaine addiction, which is addressed as honestly and unapologetically as it comes on "One Way Ticket's" opening track. The Darkness meant it, all right. It's just that when you "meant it" the way that Queen "meant it", some people are going to miss the message.

1 comment:

Nate A said...

I'll never forget the day you turned me on to the Darkness' 2nd album. 'Knockers' particularly has changed my life.