Chasing the Impossible Past: How a Band Moves on from Its Masterpiece Album
The downside of releasing a perfect record is that you might forever live in its shadow.
From seemingly nowhere in June of 2012, an up-and-coming band from Vancouver called Japandroids dropped Celebration Rock, the summer album to end all summer albums. With its shout-along choruses, fuck-it-all attitude, and unabashed guitar worship, the record was instantly gratifying, and only sounded better as the Saturdays of July and August offered the chances to blast its eight songs out of car windows on sunny drives to the beach.
The album brought the Canadian duo a flood of new fans, the band became the stuff of rock writer wet dreams, and their meteoric success proved that there was still some bite left in indie rock after an abysmal few years of Garden State soundtrack variety mush rock. Celebration Rock came to define the band's sound, and its title became the perfect descriptor of its creators' ethos. And although Japandroids had only one other album under their belt, 2009's Post-Nothing, the consensus among their fans was that Celebration Rock might just forever be their unmatchable crowning achievement.
Three thousand miles away in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the Menzingers were in a similar boat. Three months earlier, the melodic punk band released their third album, On the Impossible Past, and, after six years that saw the four-piece honing their musical identity, they finally found what they had been chasing. The album was a perfect storm of songwriting, right from its unmistakably downtrodden intro to all the lyrical themes of wistful nostalgia contained thereafter. A rare and perfect thing that stood several feet taller than its peers.
Although On the Impossible Past largely failed to break into the mainstream canon the way that Celebration Rock did (the industry gatekeepers of the time had little interest in this slice of the punk scene), it became the pride and joy of the little world it inhabited. Punknews, the community-run website whose Fest-going readership is fertile ground for a band like the Menzingers, listed it as the number one album in its year-end staff list. (Celebration Rock was number four.) The band saw their fanbase grow and they became the go-to band's band, even getting namechecked as an inspiration by pop punk godfather Milo Aukerman of Descendents.
In a small stroke of fate, the Menzingers and Japandroids, two bands that five years ago struck lightning in their respective bottles on either side of North America, released new albums on the same day last week under the same parent label, Epitaph Records. With the releases of each, After the Party for the Menzingers and Near to the Wild Heart of Life for Japandroids, the two bands now find themselves in the same predicament: How does a band move on from the album that many will forever consider their masterpiece?
"I think remaining sane as an artist requires an understanding that your relationship with fans is forever changing, on a one-by-one basis. Needing to constantly replicate the high is a fool's task," says Jon Caramanica, the New York Times music critic who recently gave After the Party a favorable review on the front page of the Arts section. "Fans celebrate the image of artists they've captured in their minds, not the real ones on stage. So given that you can't compete with a memory, might as well stay low and keep firing."
The Menzingers are a little farther along in digging a path away from this hole they unintentionally dug themselves, having broken the gap with a follow-up LP in 2014, Rented World, a record that, although solidly written and well received, often got cursed with the sin of not being its predecessor. The band got bumped out of the number one spot in Punknews' staff list that year by Against Me!'s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a hard act to follow.
But for Japandroids, the pressure had been building. After touring off Celebration Rock for nearly three years and then going into hibernation for the last two, many fans started to wonder if the Canucks would ever return at all, as if their success paralyzed them creatively. A creative breakdown wouldn't be without precedent. In the most intense example of crippling expectations, The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson received a call from John Lennon after the release of the band's 1966 landmark album, Pet Sounds, telling him it was the greatest album ever made. That sort of pressure, combined with an impossibly heavy workload and a healthy diet of LSD, in Wilson's words, fucked his brain.
More recently, Arcade Fire's debut album Funeral amassed them a fanbase that touted David Byrne, Bono, and David Bowie as members. Bowie, a master of musical reinvention himself, once said he bought a huge stack of Funeral CDs and gave them to all his friends.
"When your first album is [2004's] Funeral and it does so well and is so well-loved by people and there's such a level of fervor about the band from the outset, that creates a high level of expectation for everything they do from there on out," Mac McCaughan, co-founder of Arcade Fire's label Merge Records, said at the time.
Funeral was not only a perfectly constructed record, it arguably defined the indie rock style of the mid-2000s. And while their 2006 follow-up, Neon Bible, received critical acclaim and saw the band performing on Saturday Night Live, the praise felt like overcompensation by those who were late to the game on Funeral. Nevertheless, Arcade Fire never looked back and, now four varied and distinct albums into their career, their continued tenure is proof that if leveraged correctly, a hit record can greatly aid its successors.
High expectations from fans and record labels have been known to produce some good old fashioned writer's block, or at least present a certain standard that needs to be matched if not exceeded. In an oral history of Cursive's unexpected hit record The Ugly Organ, frontman Tim Kasher told me that "In your head, you're always trying to outdo yourself. So for me, I'm always trying to outdo Ugly Organ in a sense. But with that, I don't have any expectations. But you just try." Three years later, with Happy Hollow, he changed up the band's vibe by doing away with the cello that defined The Ugly Organ's sound.
Most often, a great album's pitfall is not that its quality is eternally unmatchable, but that it becomes too synonymous with a time and place for listeners. MGMT's mega-produced party record Oracular Spectacular, for example, perfectly captured the irony-laden malaise felt by disaffected youth after eight years of the Bush administration. It also sold millions of copies in the process. After a year spent dancing nightly to "Electric Feel" and doing a bunch of Ecstasy, the duo inadvertently became the shallow rock stars they were satirizing on the album. They changed gears on their follow-up, Congratulations, ditching the pop ear candy in pursuit of artistry, much to the chagrin of their headband-wearing fans. Rolling Stone called it "a hazy, hit-and-miss album that will likely alienate some fans of the debut." The first line of Pitchfork's review read: "If you're coming to the second MGMT album because you loved 'Time to Pretend', 'Kids', and 'Electric Feel', there's the door."
In extreme examples, artists have made concerted efforts to completely abandon the sound that came to define them, especially when that sound starts to date itself. Ten years, a slew of Kanye West collaborations, and one complicated, vocal synthesizer-heavy album of Ⓖ00Ϝ¥ $0ᴎ⅁ Ŧiⓣ£∑S after Bon Iver's breakout debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon still stands a pretty good chance of being labeled the cabin-in-the-woods folksy flannel guy for the rest of his career. Regardless, Vernon didn't have much interest in bearing that torch anymore. "I needed it to sound radical for me to feel good about putting something out in the world," he told NPR of his most recent release, 22, A Million, a musical 180. "The old records are of this sad nature, and I was healing myself through that stuff. Being sad about something is okay, and then wallowing in it, circling the same cycles emotionally feels boring."
Artists have different relationships with their catalog than their fans do. Sometimes, as often demonstrated in Noisey's Rank Your Records series, the clear fan-favorite is not even liked by its creator. How to Clean Everything, Propagandhi's extremely rough but much beloved debut album, seems to send a shiver down frontman Chris Hannah's spine just to think about it. "It's just so dumb," he once said of it, citing it as his least favorite release. "We were teenagers when we wrote those songs. I challenge anybody who is 45 to go back and dig out a book of poetry from high school to show it to the world—no, sing it to the world, when you've never sung before." The band has since evolved into a punk-metal behemoth, barely recognizable from the "goofy, skippy, cartoonish, laughable, Blink-182-ish kind of" band they were on their debut album.
And although it's hard to pity a band whose greatest problem is having to top a wildly beloved album, Japandroids did seem to be stuck in a lose-lose scenario going into the writing process. They could have either made Celebration Rock 2, churning out more whoas! and yeahs!, keeping fans happy but further pigeonholing themselves as the good-time guys, or they could have broken off into a different direction at the risk of alienating their crowds. The pitfall of being a one-trick pony was a problem they seemed acutely mindful of, but worked to ignore.
"As far as being a band that is drums, guitars, and vocals, who's energetic and recorded in a very simplistic way that sounds like a great live recording, it's hard for either of us to imagine being able to do that better than we did on Celebration Rock," drummer Dave Prowse told Noisey recently. "We'd kind of put together a formula by that point, but it just wasn't interesting or inspiring for us to make another record by cranking the amps up, bashing away on the drums and doing a whole bunch of full-blown rockers all the way through, with maybe a slightly slower song at the end. So we really wanted to experiment with different ways of writing songs, and what we can pull off as a two-piece."
As a result, Near to the Wild Heart of Life takes greater risks. After a familiar, quick and dirty rock banger to kick the record off, they gradually introduce a few new elements into their repertoire—some synths, more introspective lyrics, and even a sweeping seven-and-a-half-minute ballad. They may not have completely reinvented what it means to be a Japandroid, but it's clearly a deliberate effort towards evolving. After the Party, on the other hand, sees the Menzingers maturing a bit, tackling the problems that come with hitting one's thirties, but musically, delivering more of what put them on the map.
For Japandroids and the Menzingers, time will tell how their albums are judged by fans and themselves, and where they go from here. Both have made records that are departures from their past work—not so much that they'll be unrecognizable to fans, but enough to give them differentials to bicker over.
Dan Ozzi's earlier stuff was better. Follow him on Twitter.