Many would agree that a band has its life to date to make its first album and six months for the second. Over time, musicians evolve, changing their sound while constantly building upon it. Similarly, they overcome challenges as they attempt to retain their individuality in constantly changing social scenes. Whatever move they decide to make with the next album they create, be their second or fourth, the move that they make will always alter their career.
A second album can often serve the purpose of breaking away from existing stereotypes. Some are able to make it work having gathered enough practice in the music world to create a masterful piece, but others make us wonder why they ever changed their sound in the first place. For instance, we can turn to MGMT, a band we have not heard much from lately. I remember being introduced to them while watching the opening scene of “21,” a bike ride through Boston set to “Time to Pretend.” From then on, I would relate the song to an open road, always ready to chant “no turning back, no looking back.” The rest of “Oracular Spectacular,” the album that really plunged MGMT into their music career, was also full of upbeat rhythms, music that was particularly easy to listen to. It was still atypical to what was playing on the radio at the time with unlikely lyrics and electronic beats. Fun and exciting it definitely was; however, it didn’t really give them any other image other than some weird guys from Wesleyan University with cool videos and songs that we could listen to over and over again on the radio, at parties, or on iTunes. It was what we wanted and they did it well. They didn’t have to be more than mediocre at the instruments they played, their eccentricity drove them to creating songs that would become a staple in the music lives of teenagers and twenty-somethings. Released in early 2010, MGMT’s second album, “Congratulations” was not as well received as the first. Whether it was a good or bad move given their quick success early on, it was definitely a career changing one. The album is a mix of different sounds ranging from psychedelic beats to ethereal rhythms with a certain atmospheric quality. I can honestly say that “Congratulations” is an album with a longer lifespan than MGMT’s first. Though it may not have been as much of a blow out hit as “Oracular Spectacular” was almost four years ago, it is an album that will have fans turning back to much more often. Not simply a trend, it puts the actual musical talents of the band at the forefront, showing that they can do more than release a popular, but possibly over produced album. The influences of “Oracular Spectacular” are apparent throughout the entire album. For instance, “Flash Delirium,” the single released prior to the album was an indication that the band was not hoping to stray too far from their roots. In addition to having the usual extremely odd music video (which may have received more attention than the song itself), the song seemed to pay homage to parts of the band’s first. However, the rest of the album takes a different direction. The songs were softer, focusing more strongly on cohesive tracks rather than catchy beats. In addition to the sounds, the arrangement of the album was filled with clever and ironic undertones. For instance, the eighth track on the album is an instrumental song titled “Lady Dada’s Nightmare.” While viewing the album for the first time, this title initially struck my eye. It seemed to me that they had created a puzzle to be interpreted using cultural knowledge whether it be pertaining to current trends in pop music or an art historical experience. Similarly, I find it to be the band’s invitation for individual listeners to create their own analysis of the album. Ultimately, I saw the song as a commentary on pop culture. The title allows listeners to look back at Dada, a cultural movement of the 20th century which was a means of poking fun at the meaninglessness of cultural conformity. The title also is an allusion to Lady Gaga and the attention that she receives for her music and state of mind. Whether the title and the song are meant to break away or fall into the traps of 21st century pop culture is up to the listeners to decide. The song itself is also ambiguous, lacking lyrics that would tell an obvious story. Not an obvious hit, it is a song that serves a greater need as it is part of an album with many layers. With its witty compilation of sounds, titles, and lyrics, “Congratulations” is an album that is better viewed as a whole than in individual parts. Both easy to listen to and experimental, it exemplifies the extent that MGMT is ready to go in order to create a musical experience unique to every listener.
As bands release more albums, it often becomes difficult to create something new and unique each time. Some choose to experiment, while others decide to continue doing what has already brought them success. Just as in almost all situations, reaching a happy medium, though difficult, often creates a cohesive album that is both unique and typical in individual ways. With this process, the band grows and achieves longevity. “Angles,” the fourth album by The Strokes, was finally released a few days ago after a long five year break. The album exemplifies how musicians grow, not only individually but also together. Though their sound has obviously changed since the release of “Is This It,” there are still inklings of the old Strokes resounding from within. In addition to a Julian Casablancas more in the shadows, individual songs boast new musical techniques, allowing “Angles” to become a multifaceted and dynamic record. Primarily, the first track, “Machu Picchu” opens with an islandy feel, a vibe that has not been typical to the band. It also exemplifies how the band instigated more of a group dynamic in the making of this record, as it was written by Nick Valensi, the first time he has contributed a track. “Angles” is also an album of interesting intros. Take “Games” for instance; it begins by sounding like background music for a jazzercise video straight out of the Bahamas. Though a bit of that is found in the rest of the song, it certainly lacks that level of immaturity. Relying on dynamic beats, a rhythmic bass, and a drummer that keeps the song on track, “Games” becomes an interesting one to say the least. Julian’s voice, though always (angelic and) wonderful to hear, is not the spotlight of this song or even album. It is as though he is using his voice to allow his listeners to pay further attention to the music the group has created. Rather than draw attention to himself, he is emphasizing what has been created as a whole, allowing “Games” to become a ‘mature’ song, bringing an odd intro while losing some of what used to be typical to the band. “Angles” as a whole allows listeners to have a taste of something new while being reminded of what they love. Just as a good new album should, “Angles” has us turn back to appreciate what has already been done while allowing us to look into the future, wondering what we should expect next.
Whether it be to gain maturity or to break a band stereotype, the band grows with each new album they create. In addition to their own personal gains, they create some level of mystery for their faithful listeners. Somehow, we are always left to wonder to ourselves: “Will there be another?”