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.
Backwards: Ryan Adams, Gold (2001)
First, we must address the cover. The cover of Ryan Adams’ Gold makes a strong and quite indicative impression of what lies inside. It’s our hero in what looks like an Aeropostale-goes-punk photo shoot. With something like Robert Smith hair and a regrettable belt, Adams stands…wait, no, bends over from an apparently overdue appendectomy in front of an upside down American flag. The reference point here is obviously Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A., and this lame duck riff on that rock music classic shines a light on what Adams does throughout the 70 minutes that made Gold’s final cut.
While the cover implies Adams is doing something new with the Americana music he’s borrowing from through the record, he isn’t. Unfortunately, Gold comes off as an unintentional pastiche of Bob Dylan (“Nobody Girl”), Van Morrison (“The Rescue Blues”), The Rolling Stones (“Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues”), and on and on with each track. This appropriation of the annals of classic rock at its most superficial level leaves each song with an emotional distance that’s extremely disappointing as a follow-up to the aptly titled Heartbreaker.
Otherwise, as you might expect from a song called ‘Sylvia Plath’, it’s entirely boring and navel-gazing on a level Sufjan Stevens would be jealous of. “Firecracker” has some very pleasant bits to it, but like most of the record, it sounds too much like something else you’ve already heard to be much more than an adult-contempo standard. And “Harder Now That It’s Over” is a milquetoast iteration of a song Adams has perfected elsewhere.
Gold set Adams on a trajectory as a songwriter with often absolutely penetrating songs and gorgeous moments unable to sustain a consistent and fully developed album of the likes we saw with Heartbreaker. “Somehow, Someday” contains this argument in its 4 ½ minute runtime. The chorus is beautiful but is surrounded by an annoying Americana lampooning that colors the rest of Gold. This is his career. This is how I apprehend most of his albums – he comes off as trying to wrap his talents in replications of genres and bands to an unfortunate degree, but here and there, his brilliance can’t help but peak its head.
Switching from “Somehow, Someday” – or any Gold track, really – to a song like Heartbreaker’s “Come Pick Me Up” makes for a jarring juxtaposition in production between the two records. While I have attributed most of Gold’s failure to Adams’ instrumental direction, the album’s production is quite disappointing as well. Where Heartbreaker sounds crisp yet personal, Gold is a dull example of the stereotypical Nashville record, wherein as many musicians as possible are squeezed into the same track.
The critical reception of Gold is mixed. While some agree its one of Adams’ least successful –albeit ambitious – artistic endeavors, others, such as Rolling Stone Magazine consider it one of the best albums of the aughts. The cynic in me immediately jumps to the conclusion that Gold was memorialized (by some) as a result of being a victim of circumstance. Gold, an album with an opening track called “New York, New York” was released September 25, 2001, exactly two weeks after the fall of the World Trade Center. “New York, New York” was a staple of cable music networks as a inferential way of paying tribute to those lost two weeks prior. For my money, he made three albums before 2008 that are superior to Gold.
Because even Ryan Adams’ most boring albums still have one or two songs that few in the biz could ever dream of making, Gold boasts “Answering Bell,” a rollicking good track fit for a summer road trip, and “When The Stars Go Blue,” which isn’t one of his best songs by any means, but prominently features Adams’ dreamy falsetto in a ballad made for a middle-aged drama soundtrack.
Sideways: Flaming Lips, At War With The Mystics (2006)
From the period of about 1999-2004, the Flaming Lips were on a real roll. The finally seemed to simultaneously harness their frenetic energy and fulfill their artistic potential with 1999’s beautiful The Soft Bulletin. They were almost a completely different band, having ditched the alternative psych rock and druggy atmospheres for a straight-up pop record, while still maintaining their unique edge. They had finally grown-up and it was an exciting thing to behold. 3 years later they returned with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot, maintaining their newfound sense of fun while bringing in more experimentation. It was a rousing success and it saw the band reach critical and commercial heights they had never seen before. While there was certainly pressure from critics for the Lips to follow-up The Soft Bulletin, the pressure was even higher following Yoshimi… Now, the Lips were nearly mainstream—their audience was larger than it ever had been and they definitely earned the accolades they were receiving on the road and in the press. It took the Lips 4 years to come up with a follow-up and the results were…underwhelming.
It doesn’t help that 2006’s At War with the Mystics begins with two songs that are almost completely insufferable. The “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” is, somehow, one of the Lips more popular songs, mostly due to its exposure in various commercials, films, and television shows. It’s catchy, but it’s catchy in a way that Raffi’s songs are catchy; it’s just a little too sweet and pungent (that constant “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…” refrain is, to put it bluntly, annoying).
That is followed by “Free Radicals,” which is Wayne Coyne’s desperate attempt to write a political protest song (this record having been written and recorded in the heyday of the George W. Bush presidency). And the poor guy just can’t quite pull it off. We don’t know if Coyne is angry at the Bush administration or if he doesn’t actually care and just feels the need to say something. Coyne’s commentary is about as powerful as a collection of lame, elementary school-level playground taunts: You think you’re radical/But you’re not so radical/In fact, you’re fanatical, and You’re turning into/A poor man’s Donald Trump, which perhaps are the most egregious lyrics in the Lips’ history, which is a difficult accomplishment!
The ambitious nature of “The Sound Failure” is a welcome surprise, but being the third song in, it almost comes up a bit too late. There are admirable qualities to “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,” but it gets a little too snoozy by the time it reaches the mid-point. The same can be said about “Vein of Stars” and the Pink Floyd-esque “The Wizard Turns On…” which give-off the impression that At War With The Mystics is really just a collection of meandering studio experiments, recorded during a time when the Lips were trying to figure out their next move.
That’s not to say At War With The Mystics is a total loss. The standout tracks come pretty late, but they merit the wait. “Mr. Ambulance Man” (featured on the soundtrack for 2005’s Wedding Crashers) has a subtle beauty to it and lyrically, may be one of Coyne’s most poignant songs. “The W.A.N.D.” is a prototypical Flaming Lips song, incorporating many of the most desiring elements of their sound with soaring aspirations. It’s one of their best singles, sort of doing everything right that the “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” did wrong.
“The W.A.N.D.” is followed by two genuinely pretty songs that close out the record: “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung” and “Goin’ On,” cementing the album’s second half as the filet of At War With The Mystics. Overall, though, it seems like the band had too many ideas with no clear idea of how to execute them successfully. There’s too much filler (the overlong “It Overtakes Me” and “Haven’t Got A Clue” being prime examples) and not a lot of growth. They clearly want to go somewhere beyond where they’ve been before, but At War With The Mystics is the sound of a band without enough direction. Had it been an EP with the aforementioned standout tracks, it could’ve been a classic. Instead, it’s a mostly forgotten record that sits in the shadow of its far superior, immediate predecessors.
Forward: Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007)
Much like The Flaming Lips’ one-two punch in The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Of Montreal had the 2004 and 5 Satanic Panic In The Attic and The Sunlandic Twins. Both were pure psych-pop fun that garnered them a reputation as The Beatles for the aughts, through the prism of David Bowie. 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? continued along the same musical trajectory but applied it to a concept album that details an existential breakdown, dissolution of a relationship and the personal transformation that follows.
From its opening seconds to its closing, Hissing Fauna is an absolute barrage of sound, attitude and confession. Where the previous two LPs were more trivial, this album is spiritually naked and unafraid. Kevin Barnes bears his soul with lines like “I need a lover with soul power. And you ain’t got no soul power,” delivered with the sass of a teenager over bouncy, druggy, infectious pop music.
I can’t help but draw intertextuality between the album’s protagonist and Jim Carrey’s Riddler/Dr. E. Nygma from Batman Forever. Imagine a slightly queerer green suited Carrey singing about “dodging lamps and vegetables;” it’s not hard. In Batman Forever, the frustration he experiences as Dr. E. Nygma are dealt with through his alter ego, Riddler. Similarly, Kevin Barnes’ existential crisis leads to his mid-album transformation into an alter ego, Georgie Fruit.
That transformation, apparently, occurs during the album’s 12-minute centerpiece, “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal,” which is a sonic kaleidoscope accompanied by stream-of-consciousness confessions. Perhaps that sounds pretentious, or just annoying, but part of its magic is how it avoids either trapping of a sprawling confessional. Instead, Barnes offers brutal poignancy in his delivery of lines like “I need you here and not here too,” or “Somehow you’ve red-rovered the Gestapo circling my heart,” or its closing sentiment, “None of our secrets are physical.”
Other particular standouts (besides every single song) are “Faberge Falls For Shuggie” for an amazing echo of Barnes’ voice that transforms it into a flock of angry crows, and “Gronlandic Edit” because of Barnes’ hilarious and relatable struggle with being spiritual without subjecting yourself to people you kind of hate.
Around this time, 2007, it seemed every second indie band was making an album of connected tracks, as if the technology had just been founded. Another similarly animalistic album from the same year, Sunset Rubdown’s Random Spirit Lover, also used this device successfully (although it’s a nag for vinyl listening). This trick goes a long way to manifesting the cohesion present in the album’s literary concept. The structure and unity of the album, punctuated by the bleeding of every song to the next, makes an ending to the album unwelcome. Every strength Hissing Fauna presents are so well sustained throughout the entire record that it becomes addictive.
Cathartic and cohesive, Hissing Fauna is the culmination of the band’s musical talents complemented by probing lyricism. It is the perfect intersection of an established aesthetic and emotional outpour that seem to influence each other, and push each other to more dramatic places.