It isn’t – but it should be – called The Bullseye Conundrum. As a successful act with an overnight phenomenon of a record on your hands, do you stick with what you’ve got? A huge, guaranteed audience for at least two or three more albums of the same sort of stuff – that’s yours to take home. Or do you gamble it all and go for the caravan of cultural immortality?
Good acts know their limits. They favour security over total artistic fulfilment. They might chance their arm on a psychedelic EP, a tune with Disclosure or a power lunch with Mark Ronson or Nigel Godrich, but if it doesn’t work out they’re happy to go back to giving a faithful, if gradually shrinking, audience exactly what they want. They’re musical Chicken Cottage, and there’s no shame in that. If Chicken Cottage did a club card I’d be a platinum VIP.
Great acts, however, slash and burn. They see a major hit album as a milestone of a career rather than a blueprint. A chance to put a phase or era behind them, switch lanes and try to conquer the world with something completely different. They’re fearless in pursuit of artistic innovation because music matters far more to them than money, fame or the fickle promise of longevity. They’re sonic Icaruses, flying or falling on their own merits. We’re talking Bowie. Kate Bush. The Beatles. Talk Talk. Arctic Monkeys.
Yup – Arctic Monkeys. “It’s never gonna be like ‘R U Mine?’ and all that stuff again,” drummer Matt Helders told Mike Dolbear of DrumathonLIVE 2022 this week, and while a few quiffs might have wilted in the less adventurous corners of the Sheffield Leadmill, most Monkeys fans would have been thrilled at the news – even if we do adore ‘AM’. They’re a band well-practiced in torching their own rulebook – there was never another ‘Whatever You Say I Am…’, and 2018’s ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ was undoubtedly in another lunar chateau from anything they’d done before.
“It kinda picks up where the other one left off, musically,” Helders said of the new album, currently in the final stages of construction – but where the hell was that? The VIP cocktail lounge of a star-port to some other frickin’ planet? Next stop Alderaan?
To take such risks is a privilege of the successful, of course. There’s rock’n’roll honour in sticking to your stylistic guns as you rise through the festival ranks, determined to make the world sit up and listen to your unique and inimitable brand of Norwegian jazz grunge. It’s noble indeed to reject your label’s relentless suggestions that you might want to try going “a bit Bastille” or co-write with one of Snow Patrol, to keep an unswerving eye on your original vision. When you finally break through, it’s only natural to reward your long patient following with a couple more records in the style to which they’ve become accustomed, rather than instantly slap them in the face with your equivalent of Neil Young’s ‘Trans’.
Those acts that explode overnight – usually, to be fair, after years sweating it out in their own personal Hamburgs – however, have a rare opportunity to risk it all for true musical glory. Double or nothing, boom or bust, godhead or retro fest. Perhaps, granted a mammoth fanbase almost overnight, they value it less than someone who kissed every baby and signed every buttock on the way up. Maybe there’s a certain imposter syndrome self-sabotage to it. Or perhaps they just need to prove to themselves that it wasn’t a fluke, that they really are musical geniuses and they could do it all again but this time (pulls genre from hat) witch-funk.
Whatever the motivation, these are the acts that change music and evolve culture, and it’s a braver band that takes the gamble in 2022 than ever before. The Beatles and Bowie made their giant leaps in an age when they could ease their way into new styles over an album or two every year – Bowie might have famously killed of Ziggy Stardust at the end of his first world tour, but he lived on for a few albums as Aladdin Sane and Halloween Jack from ‘Diamond Dogs’. The Beatles, let’s not forget, rinsed Beatlemania for five albums before blowing the lid off the ‘60s with ‘Rubber Soul’.
Facing two-to-three-year album cycles, stylistic swerves seem all the sharper – and thereby riskier – today. ‘Tranquility Base…’, the only Monkeys album to emerge in almost 10 years since their second coming with 2013’s ‘AM’, confirmed their journey as a continually unpredictable adventure, and those are the ones that history really remembers. We salute you, then, bold Bully-chasers of rock. May all the speedboats in the world be your reward.