That difficult third album
Never mind the difficult second album – it's the one after that which is causing problems for a whole host of indie bands this autumn, from Keane to Kaiser Chiefs. Elisa Bray wonders where they're going wrong
Published 24/10/2008 | 12:54
It happens just once or twice a year: a new band emerges and is hailed as the best new thing by the music industry, and months later releases an album that, in the wake of all the hype, scores highly in the pop chart.
By now Glasvegas might have come to mind; this is the indie rock band who, after Creation record label boss Alan McGee called them the "most exciting thing I've heard since Jesus and Mary Chain", were splashed on the cover of NME as "the best new band in Britain", and went to No 2 in the charts with their eponymous debut album last month. Last year it was the turn of nu rave and Klaxons, whose Myths of the Near Future reached No 2 and won them the Mercury Music Prize.
But then the band is faced with the challenge of the Difficult Second Album. In recent times, few bands have been hit so hard by the curse of expectation as The Strokes, whose 2001 debut Is This It was acclaimed for changing the face of rock music, while its follow-up Room on Fire – if less commercially successful than their first – avoided the critical pitfalls of the difficult second album. It was their third, First Impressions of Earth, that started to receive more mixed reviews from their critics. As other bands at the top of the indie-rock ladder now release their third albums to mediocre reviews, never has it been more clear that this one can be as difficult to get right as the second.
The year 2004 was a great time for rock music. With Britpop long filed under the 1990s, along came the Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand, who, with their brand of angular art rock, injected a new wave of guitar music into our charts and inspired a rebirth of rock. Four years later, we have come full circle as these same bands are releasing their third albums, as are Bloc Party, The Killers, Razorlight and Keane. Given the rate at which the music industry chews up bands and spits them out again, mirroring our insatiable need for what is new and original, they have done well to make it to this milestone. But with two high-charting albums behind them and sales for each in the millions, can they repeat their success with this telling third release?
Chances are, they will be hits. But commercial success is one thing (although it paves the record label's way for the fourth album); the critical success or quality of the album is another thing entirely, as Keane have proven with their third album Perfect Symmetry, released last week. Despite poor reviews to match their most generous critics, the band have gone straight in at the top of the chart. Even if you never claimed to be a fan of their radio-friendly, heart-swelling anthems, rather like Coldplay's, you might admit they do what they do well. Except with this album they have attempted to reinvent themselves, adding a guitar to their previously piano-led rock, and have abandoned the big, heart-tugging melodies of their earlier efforts.
Radiohead are one of the few bands to have successfully reinvented themselves, and by their third album OK Computer they had started introducing electronic and ambient influences. It is a tricky line to cross, but perhaps one problem for bands that are settled into the success of their indie rock is the reluctance to develop their musical direction by their third album.
Kaiser Chiefs burst onto the scene with the fresh, laddish exuberance and punchy melodies of their debut album Employment, but to pursue the tone and urban pop-culture observations of their debut into their second and even third albums risks them becoming formulaic. The Leeds band's Off With Their Heads met with mixed reviews. The Independent's rock critic Andy Gill labelled it "complacent", while Metro said: "Kaiser Chiefs third album epitomises that prevailing trend. Its main problem is the lack of the solid Britpop 2.0 singalongs that made the band's name. Once they predicted a riot and really connected. Now, they take Robert Palmer's 'Addicted To Love' and change it to 'Addicted To Drugs'. Who thought that was a good idea?"
As for Bloc Party, their acclaimed debut album Silent Alarm featured such stand-out singles as "Banquet" and "Helicopter", while their second album, A Weekend in the City, received some poor responses. When Intimacy – the third album – was released as a download earlier this year it was not eligible to chart, and if it fails to match the commercial success of their previous two albums when the CD is released next week, it would be fairest to blame the early download format.
Still, even if bands suffer the fate of the third-album syndrome, with such solid songs from their debuts alone, these bands still have the material to please the fans at their gigs. Now it's up to Razorlight, The Killers and Franz Ferdinand to break the mould.
Three's a crowd: the view from our rock critic, Andy Gill
Keane - Perfect Symmetry (13 October)
Rating: three stars
"Their searches seem to have led them back to possibly the most musically bereft decade of the 20th century, the 1980s. These routes at least drag Keane through what, for them, are fresh territories. In its determination to do something new, I find 'Perfect Symmetry' slightly preferable to its predecessors, although its uncertainties, both lyrical and musical, are likely to disappoint more fans than they are to convert non-believers.
Kaiser Chiefs - Off With Their Heads (20 October)
Rating: two stars
"Kaiser Chiefs have settled perhaps too comfortably into their role as inheritors of the Great British Droll Pop tradition that runs from The Kinks through to Blur – judging by 'Off With Their Heads'. Its vignettes of urban life seem too cosy compared with the spikier observations of the Arctic Monkeys, while the arrangements suggest there's some self-imposed brake on their stylings, which never stray far from the pop-rock of 'Never Miss a Beat'."
Bloc Party - Intimacy (27 October)
Rating: one star
"Intimacy has a CD version available in two months, when the last ripples of marketing momentum will surely have disappeared. Is this some form of commercial suicide, or just an ego-fuelled misjudgement of their own drawing power? Either way, it's a fitting fate for a turgid album jerry-built from indie guitar-rock angst and a half-hearted appropriation of hip-hop and dance modes, assembled with scant musical logic and little focus."