With “The Next Step,” Optimism Vaccine writers Shawn Glinis and Stephen Kohlmann are attempting to take a magnifying glass to that precarious moment when a band must acknowledge their newfound popular and critical success and negotiate the heavy burden of anticipation. This is the moment when a band must confront, overtly or implicitly, their sudden inflation in audience, attention, and overall relevance.
Although we considered many avenues that bands have occupied in this situation (the reunion or post-hiatus follow-up, the logical and satisfying transition upward or laterally, how the big corporate contract effected the follow-up) we have decided to narrow in on three distinct Next Step categories that we believe offer a wide spectrum: Backward, Sideways, and Forward.
Backward steps are usually cosmetic attempts to change aesthetics in order to appear as an evolving sound, but are merely thin veils over a band’s anxiety that they might have accidentally peaked already. Usually produced and marketed as important, these albums are more pretention or failed experimentation. Sideways steps are simply boring. These don’t mark a change, but offer more of the exact same, although stripped of the novelty that pushed their predecessors above average. Forward steps are the exciting ones. These are satisfyingly subverting at least one of two things: the audience’s expectations or the band’s previous status, ethos, claims, etc.
Backward: The Shins - Wincing the Night Away (2007)
Wincing the Night Away immediately pisses me off. And the first song, “Sleeping Lessons,” isn’t even a bad song, but it’s structure gushes of success-affected pretention. You can’t tell music is playing for the first 10 seconds, and even then it’s a near a cappella James Mercer. The hook and accompaniment aren’t established until a minute in, and then “Sleeping Lessons” doesn’t fully take shape until past the half-way mark.Wincing the Night Away came out in 2007, a long four years after the pop classic Chutes Too Narrow, and this pregnant build up of their long awaited follow up is nothing short of “Oh, you’ve been waiting four years for this? Even with the album in hand, we’re gonna make you wait another 2 ½ minutes.” Such obstinacy would be one thing if The Shins had earned such liberties over years of great albums, but they hadn’t. It would also have a different reception if WTNA was a worthy successor to Chutes, but it’s not. It’s artistically flaccid.
Otherwise, listening to this album again, I was surprised at how inoffensive it was. The aquatic opener, “Sleeping Lessons”, is even pleasant and displays a bit of that vocal affect that we had come to love from Mercer. But by “Pam Berry” (Track 3) WTNA has started its Backward candidacy. Often on this album, The Shins show they might have had something left in the tank for another really nice album, if only they wouldn’t have dressed it up in aural polka dots. But there’s also plenty on the album that suggest a different version would easily end up as a cracked CD-R face down behind your driver seat (*ehem* “Sea Legs”). But that’s the essence of Backward steps, it’s really just boilerplate material dressed up as sonic evolution.
Much more than the single, “Phantom Limb,” “Turn On Me” showcases the band’s knack for hooks and their ability to get in and out of a pop song in less than 4 minutes. And speaking of length, restraint is a big problem on WTNA. The album comes out 8 minutes longer than Chutes. And although it’s not interminable, WTNA gets boring quickly. This is another touchstone of the Backward follow up - inflation via a lack of restraint.
“Pam Berry” and “Black Wave” most overtly show a struggle to do something new; these are the throwaway tracks people often justify by applying nebulous adjectives like “atmospheric” or “ethereal” in reviews of popular publications. And “Split Needles” is their cringe-worthy idea of a dark Shins track, which is also typical of Backward follow ups – trying to indulge in darker aesthetics because that’s often confused as artsy. Even if they wouldn’t have dressed up the album’s stronger songs, these few tracks deeply pockmark an otherwise okay LP. They come across as attempts to legitimate the band as something more interesting than previously conceived. The Shins made perfectly sweet pop songs, and perhaps that was a label they felt restricted their talent. Sadly, all we wanted was more sunny goodness, not this al dente noodle of an album. That is, if we even needed more from The Shins.
When Mercer was interviewed about the absence between LPs, he would often use words like “human condition” and excusing the time as room to develop new ideas for The Shins. I can only read into this, considering what became WTNA, as too much pressure or anxiety that ended up leaving Mercer creatively bankrupt. They hadn’t even built up a large catalogue yet, or logged many hours, but were so quick to see what else they could do.
Unsurprisingly, the band members left Mercer with the moniker, which had lost most of its cache and association with anything fresh. Also unsurprising, Mercer called it an “aesthetic decision” to part ways with them. I mean, who wouldn’t want to work with this dude?... When asked what WTNA’s title meant, he referred to a lot of “difficult” stuff happening in his life. He said, The changes in my relationships had me wincing the night away.” I guess he didn’t think it would be such a good branding idea to call it Beating the Girlfriend Away.
Sideways: Aretha Franklin - Aretha (1986)
In a remarkable career that spanned over a quarter of a century, the mid-1980s were the first time that the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin became a bona fide popstar.Off the strength of three big hit singles—“Freeway of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and the Eurythmics duet “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves”—1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Whobecame Franklin’s first platinum selling record.It was a rather impressive feat, in so much as it wasn’t a “comeback” for a legend in the music industry, but rather it was the beginning of an entirely new career for Franklin.Suddenly, she was more popular than ever and a legitimate threat to the new romantic artists falling out of favor with popular music consumers of the era.
Who’s Zoomin’ Who? holds up remarkably well, even if it has the sound of 1985 stamped all over it. It was a deliberate attempt by Franklin and her team of producers to contemporize her style and introduce her astounding vocal talents to a generation that desperately needed them. The fact that it was the best-selling record of Franklin’s long career speaks to it being an artistic success and, allegedly, Franklin’s personal favorite album from her own discography.
That record’s immediate follow-up, 1986’s Aretha, was by no means a total flop. However, rather than springboard Franklin’s recent commercial fortunes into a more artistic direction, Aretha merely capitalizes on her recent newfound fame and the results are a bit underwhelming.
It’s full of kitchen-sink ‘80s production and shows no signs of artistic evolution. Contemporarily, Aretha is mainly known for featuring the hit single “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” which bookended a nearly-twenty-year gap between #1 singles for Franklin (her last one was 1967’s “Respect”). What could have been celebrated as a huge moment for Franklin was somewhat overshadowed by the song’s collaborator: the then-recently-Wham!-free George Michael. The song essentially launched Michael’s solo career, while at the same time it was Franklin’s last true statement in the pop music spotlight.
Apart from that highlight, there is a rather pedestrian cover of Rolling Stone’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (which was also the titular song for the 1987 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin’ Jack Flash) and other typical over-produced mid-‘80s filler that is only occasionally saved by Franklin’s soaring—yet somehow bored-sounding—voice. Oh, and the album cover was Andy Warhol’s final commissioned piece before his death.
Considering Aretha was already out of print by the end of the decade, it’s immediate predecessor’s legend is that much more important. But rather than kickstart Franklin’s career into an exciting and new direction, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? was more like a swan song for a career that deserved a more triumphant ending. But then again, most final records are never great (hello, In Through The Out Door and Invincible). In fact, snide remarks about the production style aside, Aretha certainly isn’t abysmal, but it is disappointing in that it could have been so much more. But in the end, Franklin’s career has never actually ENDED and her legacy has certainly persevered and triumphed post-1986-87, so what difference does it make?
Forward: Semisonic - All About Chemistry (2001)
History has not been too kind to Semisonic. The Minneapolis-based trio is often lumped into the same category as late-90s white jackass bands, specifically alt-rock also-rans like Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20, Everclear, Sugar Ray, and Smashmouth. Outside of the fact that they were simultaneously receiving significant airplay on alt-rock stations in the late ‘90s, Semisonic had very little in common with their contemporaries. The ubiquity of—and unfair novelty label bestowed upon—their mega-hit “Closing Time” had critics and audiences labeling them as “One Hit Wonders” before they even had a chance to release any follow-up singles. “Closing Time” was their biggest gift and biggest curse, and its insurmountable success obscured the fact that the album it appeared on, Feeling Strangely Fine, was one of the best LPs of 1998. Songs like “Singing In My Sleep,” “Never You Mind,” and “Secret Smile” easily stood shoulder to shoulder with “Closing Time” and any other hit single storming the charts at the time (here’s looking at you, New Radicals). And while the album achieved platinum-selling status, Semisonic was still a power-pop band being mislabeled as alt-rock and that may have led to their commercial demise.
Three years later, Semisonic released All About Chemistry, where much of the muscle in their power-pop sound was shed in favor of straight-up pop and balladry, with experimental flourishes that included the occasional R&B and blue-eyed soul detour. Hell, even Carol King makes an appearance! It’s likely that the record-buying public had no idea what to make of the album upon its 2001 release: it sounded like something both behind its time and far ahead of its time. That, and MCA did a miserable job promoting it, which was probably due to the fact that it didn’t include “Closing Time, Pt.2.”
All About Chemistry is not a concept album, but there appears to be a linear narrative: it opens with “Chemistry,” which tells the story of a young man discovering his sexuality. Singles-wise, it’s the closest the band comes to “Closing Time” territory:
Once he discovers that the “two things (they) put together have a bad tendency to explode,” he moves on to “Bed,” where his sexual awakening puts him on an ill-advised conquest to sleep with anybody willing. Granted, lyrics that expound sexual pride and discovery are hardly unprecedented in pop music, but Wilson brings us a character that is significantly insecure. While his swagger is in full-force during “Bed,” he’s already showing signs of uncertainty in his own abilities on “Act Naturally,” a ballad on par with anything you’d find on an Adele record in terms of sentimentality.
Following “Act Naturally” is “She’s Got My Number,” the raison d'être of All About Chemistry’s occasional experimental nature. The song is easily one of the finest statements the band ever made. It’s easy to get lost in the theremin, orchestra and synth-atmosphere, but at its core, it’s simply a gorgeous and intoxicating dirge:
The aforementioned narrative of the sexually-starved, but lovelorn, character continues with the straight-forward “Follow” and the Prince-meets-The Cure ode to a one-night stand “Sunshine And Chocolate” (as intriguing as it sounds). The band does go into slightly self-indulgent territory with “I Wish,” which does not completely merit its near-8-minute running time, but at the very least it maintains focus.
Then there’s the appearance by Carol King, who collaborates on “One True Love,” which sounds like a Tapestry outtake. It’s odd to imagine that in 2001, a major label act that was being sold to alt-rock markets recruited someone like King, the queen of adult contemporary radio. But here she is, in all of her middle-of-the-road glory and Semisonic couldn’t seem more at home. All About Chemistry isn’t just pop music for adults, though. “Get A Grip” hits the peak of the character’s sexual frustration. The party he’s attending in “One True Love” leaves him going home alone and, well, Blink 182 probably wishes that they could’ve wrote this:
Once the obvious masturbation references and marimbas die down, the character has come to terms with his romantic frustrations on “Surprise,” where he has resigned himself to his fate, but remains optimistic about his future.In the end, he’ll be fine, because he’s moved on from the heartbreak and the sleeping-around. Now he’s an adult who can listen to adult contemporary music. One has to wonder if All About Chemistry is actually Dan Wilson’s autobiography.
“El Matador” closes the album. Its sparse atmosphere gives listeners the sense of the band cleaning up after the party, which in turn makes it a perfect closer:
All About Chemistry is schmaltzy, dirty, and beautiful in all of the right spots. It’s not for everybody and it will do little to convert those who wrote Semisonic off as ‘90s One Hit Wonders, but at the very least it’s a shining example of a band refusing to rest on it laurels. And had audiences embraced Semisonic as a pop group rather than an alt-rock band, All About Chemistry would have likely been a hit. Instead, it was virtually ignored upon its release and Semisonic went on an indefinite hiatus in the wake of its commercial failure. In the end, its biggest achievement came in the form of a review from the notoriously snobby British music publication Q, which gave All About Chemistry a very rare 5 out of 5 stars rating (“Indispensible”). I guess that makes up for the album’s unfortunate juvenile artwork.