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 new-found 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.
Backward: Steve Winwood, Roll With It (1988)
In 2015, it’s quite easy to scoff at Steve Winwood’s output in the 1980s. However, the truth is that he had a very interesting and justifiably successful solo career. Arc of a Diver (1980) and Talking Back to the Night (1982) are delightfully quirky synth-pop albums that stylistically toe the line between progressive rock and blue-eyed soul, which Winwood recorded in complete solitude in the backwoods of England (Beck shrugs). 1986’s Back in the Highlife, however, was the album that turned him into a bonafide pop star after nearly a quarter-century in the music business. Despite the MOR-related jokes easily made its expense, the album’s combination of blue-eyed soul and restrained classic rock aesthetic holds up surprisingly well (it also has clearly influenced many indie darlings over the last 10 years, most noticeably Bon Iver, whose “Beth/Rest” risks a deliberative rip-off of Winwood’s Highlife-era material). It is likely that the Steve Winwood of the monstrously successful Highlife era is his best-remembered music persona, beyond his legendary turns in the 1960-'70s singing lead for Spencer Davis Group and Traffic. Strangely enough, Winwood followed his solo commercial and artistic breakthrough with a frustratingly faux-soul/blues record.
Roll With It (1988) features Winwood on the album cover, clad in a leather jacket whilst offering a modestly smug sneer at the camera’s lens. It appears that he’s standing against a concrete wall in some non-descript back alley, on the brink of slashing some poor schlemiel’s white-wall tires. More directly, the album cover was a meta-reference to Winwood shedding his most recent past. “Hey, kids!” he declared, “I’m no longer that blazer-clad crooner who won a bunch of Grammys last year because all of your parents bought a copy of Back In The Highlife. I’m ready to rock out!” Without even listening to Roll With It, there was already a sense that Winwood (or his new label, Virgin) was trying to appeal to a younger crowd by being uncompromisingly cool. Unfortunately, the image overhaul was as awkward as a close relative’s middle-age crisis. The same goes for every single song on Roll With It.
The title track reeks of desperation for Winwood to come off as an authentic blues singer. However, the production style and performance combined give off the impression of an extremely contrived piece of homogeneous goop. The music video mirrors that unfortunate result, complete with Winwood “soulfully” singing in a sweaty juke joint, again, aiming to make “Roll With It” appear far more genuine than it actually is:
Additionally, while there is nothing wrong with making music that is deliberately commercial, Winwood is a talented enough singer and musician that it seems inappropriate for him to hide behind Roll With It's bombastic sheen, especially when Virgin was trying so desperately to sell him as the real deal. Every song on the album sounds like it was recorded for a beer commercial. That is no exaggeration. In fact, Winwood faced some criticism when “Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do” showed up in a Michelob commercial just before the album’s official release. The song itself is almost too sickeningly sophisticated for a domestic beer commercial, but then again, Michelob was beer for those with finer tastes in 1988 (craft beers were more than a decade away from being a prominent fixture in the market). Funnily enough, I distinctly remember hearing this song in commercials advertising for wine tastings at Marshall Field’s department stores on PBS in Milwaukee in the early 1990s.
Unfortunately, no matter how commercially successful the album was (it is Winwood’s first and only album to reach #1 in the Billboard charts), it was a desperate grasp at fleeting fame and an impossible effort to ditch the image. Beyond the aforementioned songs, Roll With It provides filler and MOR-meanderings unfit for respectable listening, especially from an artist's pedigree that is as impressive as Winwood’s. Rather than capitalize on his new-found commercial success, he treaded water in the ocean of creativity. That’s a perfectly fine career move, if you only want to sell albums to people who think that you’re worth a damn because of a few Grammy nominations.
Sideways: Steely Dan, Gaucho (1980)
I originally pitched this album as a Backwards Step for the band. It was always the least appealing thing the paragons of dad rock made in their pre-Y2K career. But coming back to Gaucho for the sake of this column, I realized that the once-swan song LP—made amidst convoluted turmoil (both business and personal)—was just overshadowed by its predecessor. If Steely Dan represents Dad Rock, Aja is their thesis. It’s the unanimous critical and fan favorite. The 33 1/3 series (of books based on singular albums) inducted Aja into their canon. I mean, the boozy, white guy loner anthem “Deacon Blues” is the album’s centerpiece.
As you might suspect, I didn’t live through Gaucho’s release. My impression of its quality is not tied up in my reaction to any initial critical or common reception. My orientation to Steely Dan’s music was hearing my dad’s interminable loops of the band’s box set through the rear speakers of our family mini-van, like one entire album after another, until we reached Florida.
It didn’t take very many of those trips to realize that Steely Dan made good tracks, but it was hard to muster through an entire album (Aja aside) without wanting to skip a track either out of fatigue or just disinterest. But, listening to Gaucho now, it sounds very much like Steely Dan. They’re not failing under any new conceits—rather, it too often sounds like the Dan on player-piano mode. It’s algorithm Dan. Songs like “Glamour Profession” are not misguided or weird, just painfully boring. When I want to skip tracks on previous LPs, it’s almost always out of distaste for some sonic outlier. I will always move past “Bodhisattva” and “With A Gun” simply because those don’t represent the aesthetic I go to Steely Dan for. But the songs I want to skip on Gaucho aren’t risky, weird attempts at something new, just watered down facsimiles of the band’s ethos.
Except “Hey Nineteen,” which I skip for another reason. Steely Dan’s protagonists have always embodied the night owls, the quiet drunks in the corner of the billiard room. Now, imagine that cool dude trying to procure a night with a barely legal chick using tequila and cocaine. That’s what “Hey Nineteen” is. Yes, it’s super catchy, has a great backup chorus line and some of Donald Fagen’s most affecting vocals. But “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (off Katy Lied) sounds like a great time too:
Come on, come on
Soon you will be eighteen
I think you know what I mean
Don't tell your mama
Your daddy or mama
They'll never know where you been
Everyone's gone to the movies
Now we're alone at last
That unlistenable hit aside, with Gaucho the band maintains their standard of excellent titular tracks. In fact, that catchy saxophone stuff on “Gaucho” would be brilliant enough on its own to keep the album from being a backwards step. And “Babylon Sisters” is terrific, as we all know. Although it too comes across as creepy and sexually predatory, its protagonist seems to know he’s not exactly the greatest guy in the world. “My Rival” coasts on a nice chorus and cool organ but otherwise isn’t interesting outside of the line, “I struck a match on the door of Anthony’s Bar & Grill.”
Besides looking at individual tracks, something about Gaucho’s arrangement feels thrown together. Aja is almost conceptual, or at least the tracks are unified by a taut tone. Although Gaucho has been interpreted or rumored as a concept album, it seems much more like a collection of b-sides. Like “Third World Man,” the album’s closing track. That’s a darn beautiful song, but where does it come from? It marks such a dramatic, unearned change in tone that when listened to in the context of the album, the song’s quality dwindles. And though Gaucho is only two minutes shorter than its predecessor, the album comes off much briefer, as if you’re consistently waiting for it to catch steam…and then it's over.
Forward: Bjork, Medulla (2004)
Medulla came out during my freshman year of college. It turned out to be my most frequent study-buddy, popping it into the computer lab CD-ROM drives while I got acquainted with college paper writing. That might not sound like much until you consider tracks like “Ancestors,” which plays dry-heave-and-ugly-cry ping pong throughout its four minutes.
The sounds you hear on Medulla are almost exclusively voices. Yes, it sounds gimmicky, like the inflated concept album that some bands make after their opus—pregnant with artistic confusion. Thankfully, it’s not. Bjork commissioned a gaggle of vocal artists for the record—most notably Rahzel and Robert Wyatt—to create faux-percussion, choruses, and other sounds. The album is weird, for sure. It combines elements of a cappella, beatboxing and throat singing to compliment, or more precisely, cultivate Bjork’s experimental-pop music. Overall, Medulla isn’t a change in aesthetics, but the same brilliance exploring new rooms in the same house.
The story of Medulla’s success isn’t “Think about how crazy it is—almost all voices!” but rather how the voices range from apparent to concealed. Throughout the album, obvious throat singing is converging with human sounds remarkably close to programmed beats and textures. It is, at times, “electronic music” made entirely of human voices. Or sometimes, as with the contemplative and compelling “Desired Constellation,” voices are processed to make up instrumentation. This convergence of humans and technology makes for a profound experience that still feels groundbreaking over a decade later.
Bjork’s M.O. has always been accessible avant-garde. She is remarkably talented at making soulful hooks embedded into strangeness, like the beautiful and swaying repetition of her line “How am I going to make it right?” that makes up “Desired Constellation.” The first single, “Who Is It,” is just a remarkable pop gem that makes perfect use of the Bjork-Rahzel duet. And while the Robert Wyatt-heavy “Submarine” is an off-focus failure that momentarily detours the album, the duo fare much better on the wavy “Oceania.”
At its emotional center, Medulla is an examination of Bjork’s tentative self-assurance. The opening track, “The Pleasure Is All Mine,” stresses the constant strength she exhibits before confessing she’s lost all faith in herself in the successive “Show Me Forgiveness.” There is a frequent vacillation on Medulla that posits there is no in-between. “Where Is The Line” captures this in very Nights of Cabiria-esque fashion. The protagonist is constantly opening herself up to a partner in hopes they won’t keep taking advantage of her. But unlike Fellini’s titular Cabiria, she’s finally sticking up for herself. At times, Bjork’s songs represent a beacon of confidence, while at other times confessing just how uncertain everything is.
It’s not always as cohesive and perfect as Vespertine, but it’s hard to find a next step that’s as concurrently interesting, meaningful and altogether successful as this one. Medulla finds Bjork following up her most beautiful album to-date with an album that reveals she’s more in charge of her medium.