When Musicians Are So Good That It Actually Hurts Them

11.30.15 2 years ago 4 Comments



One of the biggest ways the music industry has changed from, say, 50 years ago, is that artists have much more time to make albums than they used to. In the ’60s, the Beatles, the Stones and the like churned out records at a rate that seems stunningly high by modern standards. Revolver, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were all made in less than two years! But while we might bristle about how much longer it takes artists to make new music today, it’s probably a much better situation for the actual musicians. They have time to polish their work, and get every detail exactly right, and being able to spend more time writing songs decreases the likelihood of filler. There’s one particular set of artists who particularly benefit from having more time to work on their music: those who just released an album that everyone loved, and are now facing a mountain of pressure.

Two years ago, Lorde stunned us with her debut album, Pure Heroine. The album featured several immediately catchy beats, but perhaps more importantly, a lot of thoughtful, intelligent lyrics. While it was a strong debut from any standpoint, what really made it stand out to so many people that it was released when she was only 16. Beyond that, some of the songs were probably written when she was still 15, maybe even younger? How was that possible?! When I was her age, I was — like most high-school students — writing some of the worst, most self-indulgent “poetry” you could possibly imagine. And here she was writing “Royals” and “Tennis Court.” While this may not be totally fair to Lorde, her age played into the phenomenon of Pure Heroine for the same reason sports fans are amazed when a rookie comes in and puts numbers that rival those of a seasoned vet. If this is what she can do now, imagine what she’ll do when she gets older!

And there’s a pretty solid chance that comes to fruition. As great as Pure Heroine was, it’s quite possible that we’ll end up looking at it as her worst album, and that she has future masterpieces that will leave us utterly stunned. Hey, there’s no reason not to be optimistic, right? Of course, the only thing wrong with these kind of positive projections is that they put an undue amount of pressure on the artist. Lorde fans who loved her debut run the risk of projecting their wildest hopes and dreams onto her in a way that sets the bar for her sophomore album extremely high. Admittedly, Lorde is the type of person who probably loves a challenge like this, but there’s this simultaneous notion of:

A. Lorde’s debut was great.

B. But if her follow-up isn’t even better, we will be disappointed.

And while as a hopeful music fan that’s certainly understandable, it just doesn’t seem totally fair.

Of course, Lorde isn’t the only artist facing a dilemma like this. There’s also Frank Ocean. In the early 2010s, he blew our minds with the nostalgia, ULTRA. mixtape and the channel ORANGE album. Well, okay, he blew the mind of everyone except Don Henley. You get the idea. The point is, his early work was so strong, so far beyond what you expect someone so young, and so early into his career to be doing, that, much like the Lorde situation, it sets the standard for the next album at an extremely high level. Come to think of it, Ocean is probably under more pressure than Lorde; Pure Heroine was a self-assured, well-made album, but channel ORANGE was a deep, engrossing masterpiece, and Ocean made it at a time when you’d think he’d just be getting warmed up. How do you follow that up?

Apparently, Ocean has had a difficult time answering that question himself. Multiple times this year, we’ve heard stories that his new album Boys Don’t Cry was coming any day now, only to to be disappointed. One can hope that this is simply the result of Ocean needing a little more time to put the finishing touches on his work, and not the start of another Detox/Chinese Democracy nightmare, but in any rate, Ocean’s hesitance to release his latest work is understandable. He made one of the best — and most important — albums of the early 2010s, and he wants the follow-up to live up to that standard.

After a nearly five-year wait, Adele finally released 25, the follow-up to her much-beloved, massive-selling, Grammy-devouring 21. You can see why Adele would take her time recording the follow-up; 21 wasn’t just a well-regarded album, it was a cultural phenomenon. “Rolling In The Deep” and “Someone Like You” immediately became standards, and the album gave us the most predictable Grammys ever. When you have something like that on your hands, you wouldn’t exactly be in a rush to make the sequel; not when you’ve already been canonized, and the threat of diminishing returns could ruin the great thing you have going. Luckily, Adele has finally pulled through. 25 isn’t exactly a critical darling (though it’s gotten some strong reviews), but its record-shattering first week makes it clear that the purchasing public approves. Meanwhile, like so many of us, Adele is currently wondering when we’re gonna get that new Frank Ocean album. Hopefully, as someone who has been in a similar position, she’ll be able to empathize.

When an artist makes an album that everyone loves, an album that immediately makes them an important figure within pop culture, that success comes with a great insecurity: What do I do now? How do I make something better than — or even on par with — what I’ve done before? How do I know the public that loves me now won’t spit me out if they don’t like the thing I make next? The natural response to this insecurity is to spend as much time working on that follow-up as possible. This could be because they want every detail to be perfect, but it could also simply be because they aren’t ready to be judged by their new album, and might want a little more time to bask in the praise of what they’ve already done. At any rate, when you’re favorite artist takes more time between releases than you might like, try to be understanding, and try to consider the ridiculous amount of pressure they’re dealing with.

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