Just Say No
I was talking to a friend recently about artists that you just wish would stop releasing albums, if only to preserve their legacy. The conversation started while listening to “You Better You Bet” on the radio; while it’s by no means the worst song in the world, any time I hear it I just wish the Who had stopped recording new music after Keith Moon died. They already had a massive catalog of classic hits, and fans always want to hear their favorite bands go out on top. A large element of this desire is most certainly selfish—I have no place to decide when a band should or should not stop making music, of course (unless maybe I’m in that band). But it’s not that I want the members of the Who to cease all music-making, I just don’t want any more Who albums that don’t feel like Who albums.
The Faceless Discography
But of course artists soldier on, often outstaying their welcome for the simple fact that they can still sell records. Bands like U2 and Aerosmith just keep adding faceless releases that do nothing for their discography other than increase its number, often obscuring the fact that, at some point, they were on top of their game and making top-notch music. Or, perhaps more frustratingly, there are bands like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard who have rightfully called it quits only to come back for more when no one really wanted them to in the first place. It’s not that these bands shouldn’t get back together and tour again, but the new albums are almost always a huge let down and lack the energy and electricity of their earlier material.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and there are some great artists who continue to release quality music for decades. But since that happens so infrequently, I had to ask myself why. Do artists naturally lose their edge with age? Is the rebellious “fuck you” attitude of younger rock-n-rollers inescapably softened as they grow older, wiser, and more successful? Both of these are legitimate possibilities. But what it really seems to come down to is a brand of lethargy that is inevitably allowed after an artist has become established. Emerging artists work against an intimidating tide of opposition: control freak A&R people, seasoned career advisors, and executives with dollar signs in their eyes. The amount of times a young musician is told he can’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t, or won’t do something is about as frequent as Jaleel White getting asked to say “Did I do that” in the Urkel voice by strangers on the street.
Conversely, the more success a band has, the more freedom they gain. At first this is extremely liberating, allowing artists to break out of the mold and make some of their best work. But at some point, the pendulum seems destined to start swinging back. You know why Paul McCartney has released a number of terrible albums despite the fact that he spent years establishing himself as one of the finest songwriters in history? Because nobody would ever dare say “no” to Macca. He has almost no choice but to be constantly surrounded by sycophantic well-wishers who just think it’s a great honor to be in the control room when he lays down a track with his viola bass. U2 releases “Get On Your Boots” because nobody is going to tell them it’s a stupid song. Why? “Because they’re fucking U2, man!”
Chaos And Creation From Opposition
But back to Paul McCartney for my conclusion, because he sums up the point so nicely. A few years ago, he released what was easily one of the best albums he’s ever done as a solo artist, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. What had come over him when he did it? He had hired producer Nigel Godrich, who started telling him to make a bunch of changes and drop any songs he didn’t like from the recording. In an interview, Paul said he was taken aback by Godrich’s attitude at first, thinking he didn’t have to take it and could just as easily get rid of him. But he came to realize that attitude was exactly what he needed to make a great record. And it worked.
Now flash back to Paul’s old band, The Beatles. (You’ve heard of them, right?) An extraordinary career to say the least, and they closed it out with Abbey Road, an album that one can make a compelling argument for being their best (or at least pretty damn close). One might wonder what we might have missed out on if they just kept going a few more records, but it wasn’t too long after that when we heard some not-so-par-for-the-course songs from at least one of the principal songwriters of the group. How happy would folks be to add a bad Beatles album to their collection? It sticks out like a sore thumb.
I always have some misgivings when I hear Radiohead is going to release a new album for fear that their creative juices are running low. But with the fact that In Rainbows was so great, I can’t help but wonder: should they go out on top while they still can, or am I at risk of missing out on some incredible music if they stop too early? Maybe the possibility of being deprived of more great music means a bad album or two isn’t such a bad thing, after all.