It's brilliant second album syndrome

It’s a rock ’n’ roll cliche – your second album is never as good as your first, but a new crop of bands have made sophomore albums…

It's a rock 'n' roll cliche – your second album is never as good as your first, but a new crop of bands have made sophomore albums that far outstrip their debuts, writes JOE MUGGS

THE DIFFICULT Second Album is an enduring concept in pop mythology. Young bands, so the story goes, put their formative years into creating an explosive debut that draws on their whole life experience, then stumble when their record label forces them to do it all again only a year later. Adding to the pressure is the obsession with Young! Fresh! New! bands, which has, over the last few years, seen the mainstream turn into one big pub argument over who’s cool and who’s past it.

So why is it, then, that we are now seeing a whole set of young artists producing second albums that are significantly more satisfying than their much-hyped debuts? How did acts who were destined for the indie landfill manage to rescue themselves? Already this year, we’ve had a second album of sunny, gloriously assured dance grooves from young Jack Peñate, and there’s a classy record due soon from Jamie T. Even the much-derided Maccabees have regrouped and produced a record far more coherent and characterful than their debut.

Take the Horrors. First time around, they were easy to write off as comedy goths or a facile NMEfad. This time they have bowled critics over with the rich and strange psychedelic textures of Primary Colours– and it charted higher than their debut. Outside indieland, even Paolo Nutini, previously a watchword for ultra-bland Asda-checkout CD purchases, has produced a second record of folk, ska and Astral Weeksinfluences that is not only a) barking mad and b) brilliant but also c) a No 1 hit. This all rather goes against received wisdom that record labels have never been more impatient with young bands than they are now, and that anyone who doesn't crack it on their first attempt doesn't get a second chance.


“I guess I did try and fit in with that first album,” says Jack Peñate, whose debut followed the 2007 trend for cockney slices of life. “I knew that the media would bracket me together with Lily [Allen] and Kate Nash and Jamie T, so I allowed myself to be part of that scene. I was 20, I wanted to be part of a crew of people, and I wanted to have kids jumping about and moshing. So I got a band together and made the record that I made. Now I’m back to a style that’s more me.”

Maccabees singer Orlando Weeks also admits that his band's first record was influenced by their desire to fit in. He is particularly self-critical about the way he sang, which was at odds with his middle-class background and saw the band mercilessly mocked in the MySpace parody hit LDNIs a Victim.

“I grew up loving people like Billy Bragg,” he says, “and that was an influence – but also, I’m from south London, and round there, the more intimidated you feel in a situation, the more bravado you put on. So yeah, when I was first up on stage, I probably did over-egg my accent. We’re all a lot more comfortable with ourselves and our influences now, so hopefully that comes over. Plus we can play our instruments loads better now.”

The uncomfortable process of growing up in public happened even more intensely for the Horrors. They were signed by Loog records, under the aegis of Universal, just two weeks after their first show, and recorded their debut, Strange House, within a year, while being splattered across magazine covers and proclaimed by NME's editor to be "the new Sex Pistols".

"But we were just a psychedelic garage band," says keyboard player Rhys "Spider" Webb, "from a world where the clubs, bands, clothes, everything are really about being part of an underground network. A lot of bands form to get in NME, but that just wasn't us." When, despite the hype and heavy touring, Strange Housepeaked at No 37 in the album charts, Universal unceremoniously dumped the band.

WITH IMPRESSIVE speed, the Horrors found a new deal at indie label XL, also home to Peñate. “We played the Astoria right after we were dropped,” remembers Webb, “and it sold out. It was the first time we’d played our new material, and at the end Richard Russell from XL came to us and offered us a deal. We didn’t look back after that. Universal were always coming in saying, ‘Have you got something for the radio?’ or ‘Can you edit that differently?’ XL let us get on with it: we could close the door and really explore new ways of songwriting. They knew that we didn’t want to f**k it up, and whether it turned out to be a small or a big record, we’d have worked hard to develop our sound.”

This approach, says Richard Russell, is at the heart of XL’s artist development policy. “It’s a question of accelerated culture,” he says, “and how you deal with it. Nobody should be surprised that bands improve with time – the fact that people are surprised is utterly shocking, in fact. But with the proliferation of media, all of whom are hungry for ‘new’, it’s possible to achieve success very quickly indeed, and this exacerbates short-termism. At XL, though, we’ve got a consistent history of never having anyone succeed that quickly – because the best artists aren’t necessarily understood initially.”

This can’t be written off as pure self-promotion: Russell and XL’s first major success was nurturing the Prodigy from their rave roots to become a long-term international album and stadium show act. “It took three albums and seven years to break them internationally,” he says, “which I think was about right; they were just about ready to deal with it by then.” Since then, the label has seen the likes of the White Stripes, MIA and Dizzee Rascal move from niche markets to mega-sales. “I can’t overstate how cynical people were about both MIA and Dizzee to begin with,” Russell says. “But, like Liam from the Prodigy, like the Horrors, like Jack [Peñate], they are people who believe in it – they have a do-or-die belief in their ability to create something of worth. They are people who can take a knock and carry on, who aren’t going to fall at the first hurdle. The Horrors and Jack both took a certain amount of shit in the media when they first came around, and I think they will be stronger because of it.”

A great deal of the school-of-hard-knocks lessons for today’s acts happen on the road. With record sales down, touring is crucial and, Nutini thinks, it is where artists can prove themselves. “When I recorded my first album,” he says, “it was a hodge-podge of songs written when I was 16, 17, 18, and I didn’t understand studios and producers. But then I had two years of promoting it with my band on the road, and that’s when I really discovered the heart of the songs. Along the way, I learned so much about arrangement and dynamics. What’s more, we started to get a reputation for the shows, and started to get a more diverse audience who might not even have thought of buying the record. When it came to making the second album, the people at the label were cool; they realised that we knew what we were doing and let us just go in there and play.”

APPROPRIATELY for someone who espouses long-termism, Peñate’s musical hero is Tony Allen, the 69-year-old Afrobeat legend and drummer for Fela Kuti, currently enjoying his greatest commercial successes thanks to collaborations with Sebastian Tellier and Damon Albarn. “Tony Allen says music is about one thing,” says Peñate, “and that’s patience. It takes patience to get good, and it takes patience to get noticed, and the reason Tony Allen is so damn good is that he has more patience than anyone.”

Orlando Weeks cites acts such as Animal Collective and Arcade Fire as great bands who “get better with each album and are in it for the long term”.

Rhys Webb agrees. “You need time,” he says. “The Horrors were always serious about it. Before we were even in a band, our involvement in music and the scene that goes with it was total, and that involvement is long-term by definition. A band’s first album shouldn’t be expected to be a chart-topping, world-shaking thing. I mean, maybe we were the most exciting band in the world back then, and I think it was a great first record – but it’s probably good that it didn’t succeed commercially so much: it gave us more space to make this new one.”

The music industry is facing hard times. But it is refreshing to hear musicians barely out of their teens have such a sense of perspective and a willingness to look past the hype and think long-term. None of the current crop has made the new Pet Soundsyet – but then again, it did take the Beach Boys nine albums to get there, so don't write off the possibility.

– (Guardian service)