The Foolproof Letdown-Avoidance Method (Music Version)
If there's one thing that can make die-hard music-lovers seem exceptionally annoying--well, there's a lot of things, but here's one--it's the way many of them make it their mission in life to dampen enthusiasm with the smothering weight of their expertise. Many's the time I've started to develop an appreciation for a singer-songwriter or band around the time of their fourth or fifth album, only to hear that old defeatist call: "Their old stuff was better." True, I too have been let down by bands who started strong and then petered out. But for reasons I can't fully explain--though I tried last year--more often than not it's the other way around for me. It's the heavily hyped debut that I have a hard time getting into, and the maturing later work I enjoy more than longtime fans do.
Last year, for example, The A.V. Club published a review trashing Mates Of State's fifth album Re-arrange Us, in which the critic described the band's grown-up approach to indie-pop as "subtle, and a far cry from the yelping pandemonium of 2000's My Solo Project and 2003's Team Boo ... It's also boring as hell." Now I confess that I'd never given Mates Of State a whole lot of thought before that. I'd given their early records cursory listens, and I liked 2006's Bring It Back enough to give it a good review for this publication, but until Re-arrange Us made The A.V. Club's 2008 Top 30, on the heels of that pan, I'd never considered the full arc of their career. So a few weeks ago I went back to My Solo Project, Team Boo and 2002's Constant Concern, and tried to figure out what songs I would select from those records if I wanted to make a Mates Of State anthology for someone who'd never heard the band. In the end I took one song each from Solo and Concern, and six from Boo (which was much better than I'd remembered). I also took two from the 2004 EP All Day, four from Bring It Back, and five from Re-arrange Us. Generally speaking, Mates Of State strikes me as a band that's been either improving or maintaining quality from their third album on. Those first two albums are fine for what they are, but to me they sound like a rough roadmap to the place the band was heading.
I feel much the same way about two other indie-rock favorites: Andrew Bird and Neko Case. I've been surprised to hear so many Bird fans shrugging off his amazing new album Noble Beast, because to me it and 2007's Armchair Apocrypha are clearly superior to his sketchier earlier albums (which I like, but have a hard time fully engaging with). And when my review of Case's Middle Cyclone runs next week, I expect I'll hear the usual complaints from fans of Case's more straight-up alt-country records, that the new one can't hold a candle to The Virginian or Furnace Room Lullaby (two very good LPs that to me fall just short of the brilliance of Fox Confessor Brings The Flood or the near-brilliance of Middle Cyclone). Again, I'm not openly opposed to what these artists used to do; I just think they've since learned how to do it better.
Then again, I might feel differently if I'd listened to Bird's Music Of Hair every day for a year, rather than spinning it a few times back in 1996 and then shelving it semi-permanently. If I'd really lived with some of those debut albums, I might be more sympathetic to the music fans who seem to spend the bulk of their lives feeling vaguely disappointed. Which is why I've come up with a plan for steering clear of those crushing letdowns:
Stop listening to debut albums.
In fact, to be on the safe side, maybe we should all leave the first two or three albums by an artist on the shelf. That way we can come to them later and have a whole body of work to dig back into, with a greater sense of context for where an act might be headed. Because the problem with debut albums is that in some ways they're the last chance musicians have to catch us by surprise. We don't know them, and we don't know their work, so everything sounds fresh and new and full of potential. And we come away from that experience so hopeful, imagining all the wonderful new places our relationship with this band will take us. And then they release a follow-up album, and the potential becomes the actual. We're forced to grapple with the notion that this band has its own needs and vision, which might not intersect with ours. From that point on, it's all downhill.
So maybe no more first dates from now on. Let's just move straight to date number three or four, when we're starting to get appreciate the finer qualities that we might've missed the first time around. Is that feasible?