The Shock Of The Unlikening – Why Bands’ Second Albums Have Suddenly Become Exciting

The Rumble Strips have turned into the lavish bastard love-sprog of Jacques Brel and Elvis Costello. The Reverend has become a mariachi shaman of dark ’60s psychedelia. Jack Peñate’s gone dance. Down is up, black is white, nothing is certain any more, other than that the second Twang album will be laddish pub baggy on drugs.

Um, won’t it? Much noise is being made at the moment about the demise of the Difficult Second Album Syndrome, sparked by an influx of quite startling examples of what your dad might call ‘a sophomore effort’.

It’s not difficult to have predicted impressive second turns from The Maccabees and Future Of The Left, both of whom have returned with grand, ambitious improvements on their debuts, but would you have expected the remaining Holloways, with half the band absconded, to be piecing together the pop album of the year, as I found them in their Hammersmith studio a few weeks ago?

And six months back, if you’d have dreamed that The Horrors might come out with a critically acclaimed follow-up to the utterly meritless ‘Strange House’ you might also have believed that Dick & Dom could produce an Olivier Award-worthy ‘Waiting For Godot’ or that Tom Meighan might pen a poetic masterpiece to rival ‘The Waste Land’ in his sleep.

While I’m personally too familiar with the source material shamelessly ripped off for ‘Primary Colours’ to be as enthusiastic about it as some of the gibbering loons in the office who you’d think had never had a sniff of ‘Isn’t Anything’ before, even I can recognise a huge leap in the right direction when I hear one. Whatever next? A Booker Prize for Jordan?

It’s to ‘Primary Colours’ that I believe we largely owe this current shift, not so much due to its own arguable merits as to the enormous critical volte face it’s forced on our attitudes to second albums in general. See, for too long it’s been easy to criticise bands for releasing a second record too similar to their first.

If that sort of mentality had been prevalent in the ’80s and ’90s then the likes of REM or The Flaming Lips would’ve faced the critical firing squad a dozen times over before breaking through, but today it’s as if critics have come to adopt the major labels’ impatience for success – ie, if a band hasn’t reached its fullest potential by album number two then they automatically deserve the shoeing of a lifetime before being ground down for meat to fatten up the next pack of ravenous punk-rock hounds.

No allowance has been made for gradual development; critics have come to mirror the capitalists with the result that actually-damn-good second albums from The Strokes to The Vines to The Rakes to Maximo Park to The Kooks to Hard-Fi suffered an unfair Death By Mild Predictability.

But hey, if a band as wholeheartedly dreadful as The Horrors can come good on their second go then surely all bets are off. We’ve been forced to quash all preconceptions and consider the possibility that the next classic album might come from literally anywhere. Jack Peñate might go dance and it’ll be brilliant. And stone us, it is.

Then, of course, there’s the desperation effect of the Sword Of Damocles hanging over the heads of all new bands, no matter how successful. Gone are the days of the guaranteed six-album deal where a band can rest on their debut’s laurels, churn out the same record for a decade and watch their press hype float off down the Swanee safe in the knowledge they won’t be back on the bins until after their Greatest Hits, at least.

These days, if your second album even makes a smell like it might not match the sales of your debut then chances are it won’t come out at all.

So if you’re a band whose debut was received by the press with all the enthusiasm of a turd in a box from The Levellers, why the hell not throw all caution to the wind and radically change direction for album two? You’ve got one more shot, at most, so you might as well just go coo-coo loco crazy nuts! Death or glory! Nothing to lose, but a whole new genre’s audience to gain!

The situation’s thrown open all doors of sonic possibility – I can no longer slot any band’s CD into my MacBook and be sure of what I’m going to get. Except Oasis, obviously. I’m predicting the next New Young Pony Club album might well be skiffle; and there’s nothing to stop Hadouken! from going minimalist Norwegian reggae.

If development is dead, best do all your experimenting in one go, right now. Second albums are now all about the shock of the unlikening. We’ve entered The Age Of The Anti-Statement where unpredictability is the only rule and playing safe is the unsafest way to play of all. It’s potentially looking like the most interesting and exciting time for music this decade.

This just in: The Twang’s second album sounds like Fairground Attraction. And it’s ace.