I have this pet theory about the number of albums a band should release. I’m strangely attached to it and would like to share it with you.
I myself have released three albums ‘Restless Revolution Day By Day’ in 2004, ‘Build Library Here (or else!)’ in 2005 and ‘Fight My Battles For Me’ this year. Here they are:
This is satisfactory. If I never do another album then, numerologically, I’ll be happy. Here’s my theory:
The first album should be filled with mistakes which become endearing when seen retrospectively. These very mistakes should be what leads hardcore fans to proclaim it your best. To claim that your subsequent albums, whilst more proficient, lack soul. An example would be ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ by Pavement.
Your second album should refine the tricks of your first, whilst containing better songs. It should represent you honing your craft. Those who get into you when you release your third album should retrospectively view it as a transitional work between the two. Even though this is stupid as all artists (except me) always view their latest work as the definitive and few would actively release something they considered a transition from one thing to another. For writers the transition has already occurred, all there is is now.
The third album, then, should be the perfect one. Whatever the loyalties of hardcore fans it should be the one where whatever made you stand out on your first one is refined and those mistakes, blatant borrows from your influences, and youthful misfires are reigned in and you nail it. You release a pop record which is unique that only you could have made.
What happens next is the real point. The fourth album. Fourth albums have no defined qualities. Maybe you continue to improve? Maybe you go shit? Maybe your band disintegrates? Or maybe you get overexcited by the attention your successful meshing of your quirks and pop instincts has brought you and mistakenly attritbute it to the increase in pop ratio. So you go all out trying to make a straight pop record. Shed all the quirks and edges that made it special and assume that, because of your inherent talent a straight pop record from you will be good because of your magic touch.
This is a kind of ‘homeopathic’ approach to songwriting. You dilute the active ingredient to the point where there isn’t any left but assume some sort of magical ‘memory’ in the end product will mean it still works.
Anyway the content of the fourth album is irrelevant. The point I feel stongly about – for no rational reason – is that bands should never ever stop after four albums. It leaves things hanging. A book with no final chapter. I’d rather a band I liked released a piece of shit fifth album than only did four. At least that would be a fitting testament to human fallibility.
Four feels unfinished. Phantom limb. It’s wrong.
Two albums is not quite as bad. But still wrong. Two albums suggests it wasn’t your fault. Most bands will only manage one. I doubt many set out to do that. Most will imagine a long career filled with stylistic twists and turns and constant artistic reinvention. Two albums suggests there was probably a boring reason to stop – the label dropped you, you split up, someone died.
So doing one album is fine. Doing three albums is perfect. Doing five should be the aim. Doing four is right out. Never ever do four albums. Two albums can be forgiven. Anything more than five is A-okay.
Neutral Milk Hotel – did one lo-fi album then one utterly perfect second album. Split due to songwriter having a breakdown. This affront to numerology is mitigated by all the self-released tapes they did. 7/10
My Bloody Valentine – Sort of did three albums if you count ‘Ecstacy and Wine’. Follow the proposed trajectory perfectly. Third album was the best, then they split. So far 10/10. However rumours of a planned fourth album are worrying – it will definitely be awful. This should not happen. Hear me Kevin Shields!
Pavement – Five albums and split. Top marks. Didn’t quite follow the trajectory. First two albums fit the template but third album was a misstep in that it was a revert to weirdness and is probably their worst one. ‘Brighten the Corners’ should’ve been the third one. Then that’d be fine. 8/10
The Knife – Three albums then hiatus. Third album a major move into the leftfield do doesn’t quite follow the rules but still definitely the best one. If they never come back then that’ll be fine. 9/10
Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Four albums! Aargh! No I don’t count a cassette limited to 33 copies. That’s silly that. First album, beautiful awkward mess. Hardcore fans (me) consider it the best. Second album refines ideas. Third realises those and brings them their widest audience. Textbook. HOWEVER then they release ‘Yanqui U.X.O.’ their fourth and likely final album. And not only do they stop there it’s also rubbish. Not quite homeopathy but certainly a tired retread of past glories. 4/10
Echo & the Bunnymen – Five albums in their original lineup. Not counting the late 90s stuff which was of varying quality but was essentially an extension of Ian McCulloch’s solo career. Fifth album basically shit but at least they released one. Peaked on the fourth though the third was pretty fine so a slight misstep there. Otherwise fairly respectable 8/10.
And so on… As I said this opinion is based on absolutely nothing but is still ineffably true. So there. What have learned? Everything and nothing. Amen.