Hearing a great debut album is among the most purely enjoyable experiences a music fan can have. That feeling of discovery and the novelty of realizing how much you’re enjoying something unexpected while you’re enjoying it is about as good as it gets. But even better than that is the realization that you and the artist who made the great debut album may be at the beginning of a very long, fruitful pop-culture relationship. Then, you start to get excited for all the future great albums they’ll make that will fulfill the promise their debut has shown.
And then your heart is trampled on by the artist’s utter inability to follow through. A few albums later, you’re just staring into the middle distance as you listen to their latest release, a dull, derivative mess that has almost nothing in common with the music that thrilled you such a short time ago.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened with Cold War Kids and alt-J, and it breaks my heart.
Cold War Kids’ debut album, Robbers and Cowards, was a perfect blend of idiosyncratic garage guitars and stripped down arrangements. In 2006 (oh Lord I just typed “2006” and realized that it was over a decade ago and I’m just gonna keep typing so I don’t have to confront my own mortality at this particular moment), I would’ve sworn on a stack o’ bibles that Cold War Kids was going to be a band to watch. And so I watched them. With each album, they got a little further away from that lean, raw sound that made songs like “Hang Me Out to Dry” so compelling, and moved toward… something else. Specifically, I’d say that L.A. Divine, their latest, sounds like the producer sleeps under an Imagine Dragons poster every night.
Then there’s alt-J. Cold War Kids’ debut showed promise, but alt-J’s skipped that step and sounded ready to conquer the world from day one. An Awesome Wave was my favorite album of 2012, and I still remember texting my most music-savvy friend to buy it after I’d listened to just its first five songs. Fast forward five years and you’ll find me texting that same friend a string of 10 consecutive snoring emojis in reference to their newest record, released last week. The album is called Relaxer, and it’s as dull as dishwater. I’m still trying to figure out if the title is a bad joke.
There are a number of once-promising artists who’ve gone from fantastic to barely tolerable in a short span. Mumford and Sons. The Killers. The Strokes. Lupe Fiasco. Coldplay. I’m sure you’ve got your own personal list, filled with names that evoke a sad shake of the head and a fleeting sense of what might have been.
Listen, there’s almost always a noticeable degree of decline in the quality of artists’ music over time. Partly, they’re victims of their own success. Whatever sounded fresh about their early stuff will, inevitably, no longer sound that way after they’ve mined it for a couple of albums. But at the same time, if a band veers too far from their roots, they’ll be accused of chasing popular trends or (even worse) ignore what they’re actually good at for fear of stagnation.
Even bands that have shown a capacity to mix things up and stay relevant for a time can eventually fall prey to mediocrity. I see you, U2.
But when an exciting new musician gets me all pumped up for their next move only to fall flat on their face shortly thereafter? It’s not like you can look back at a half-dozen quality records and say, “Ah, well. They had a good run.” Nope. It’s like watching a 3-seed get beaten in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Sure, their regular season got you excited, but then they get bounced by 3 o’ clock on Thursday, and you can only shake your head and think, what a waste. But them, you’ve got to put your attention somewhere, and so it moves along to teams that still have a chance. Maybe next year, 3-seed. Maybe next year.
Which is how it works in music too, of course. Maybe alt-J will wow me in 2019 with an album that shakes off the cobwebs that seem to have gathered around the band. But I’ve only got so much musical bandwidth, and for now, I’m gonna have to use it up on bands that haven’t disappointed me so thoroughly.