Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sophomore Slump?

Fellow blogger Aaron Coyner recently referenced the phenomenon of the "sophomore slump" in his recent review of Three Days Grace's new album. It's a good review and I suggest reading it but it got me thinking... I don't think the "sophomore slump" exists.

The "sophomore slump" in music occurs when a band exhibits a significant fall-off of quality between their first album and their second. It's often expected from bands.

But to me, second albums aren't generally any worse than the first album. Some of the most influential albums from the past decade were sophomore efforts: Live's "Throwing Copper," Nirvana's "Nevermind," Radiohead's "The Bends." Solid, generally well-regarded sophomore efforts came from Everclear ("So Much For The Afterglow"), Alice in Chains ("Dirt"), Collective Soul (self-titled) and Rage Against the Machine ("Evil Empire"), among others. Furthermore, three of my personal top-five albums - Vertical Horizon's "Running on Ice," Guster's "Goldfly," and Sister Hazel's "...Somewhere More Familiar" - are second albums. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Second Helping" is also near the top.

(Yes, including "Running on Ice" is a little bit dishonest since Vertical Horizon didn't really hit it big until their third album, and their fourth album was a bit of a letdown. But there's no such thing as a senior slump. Similarly, "...Somewhere More Familiar" was Sister Hazel's breakthrough album, but in that case the album that followed it, "Fortress," was no less spectacular.)

Music critics often list certain acts as proof of the existence of a "sophomore slump" - however, the critics often don't know what they're talking about. Counting Crows' "Recovering the Satellites" is every bit as good as their debut, "August and Everything After" - it's just very, very different. Similarly with Matchbox-20's "Mad Season." Other times the quality of the second album is simply overshadowed by the sheer awesomeness of the debut: "Versus" was not a bad album, but there's no way Pearl Jam could top "Ten." Similarly, Hootie and the Blowfish released a very good second album in "Fairweather Johnson," but they simply couldn't live up to the inflated expectations generated by "Cracked Rear View" (that, and "Fairweather Johnson" was a significantly different sound that was probably less friendly to rock radio).

So I don't think the sophomore slump exists. Often, it's a figment of a band changing their sound somewhat after their debut, or it's a product of unrealistic expectations generated by a spectacular first effort. A fall-off between first and second albums does occur with some bands (see: Bush, Oasis), but not any more often than later in the album sequence. In fact, I think it's more common that the second album generates more buzz than the first, and the fall-off occurs later down the road (see: Creed, Nickelback).

Any thoughts from my musicophile readership?


Mike said...

I agree with you as far as the sophomore slump you describe is concerned, but I don't think you're using the definition most critics do. For example, you mention Oasis's fall-off between first and second albums. Somehow, I think you are considering "Be Here Now" to be a sophomore album, when in fact "Morning Glory" was the sophomore to "Definitely Maybe"'s freshman. It would be hard to argue a drop-off there. So there you, like critics, defined the sophomore slump to be the album after the big hit (at least in the States), rather than the actual second album. Most do, which is why it's such a recognized "curse".

The album immediately after the first mainstream success does appear to be more likely to falter. Consider the examples of sophomore slump you mention: Pearl Jam's "Ten" was a huge success (though I don't consider "Vs." a slump), as was Bush's "Razorblade Suitcase". Note however that Nirvana's "Nevermind", while a sophomore album, was the first one to hit it big. With Live, same deal. The Crows and M20 are good counterexamples, though. The Wallflower's sophomore effort was "Bringing Down the Horse", and then the "slump" that was "Breach" was brought on by, as you say, unrealistic expectations.

I could continue, but it occurs to me I've spent entirely too much time writing this response while at work. Maybe I shall return.

OWM said...

I gotta agree with Mike. Check out Avenged Sevenfold. Their first major album is now even though they have like 3 others, odds are their next one will be a slump(though its a good album they just seem to have "slump" written all over them). I hadn't really heard of them before Bat Country. Red Hot Chili Peppers album following their first major album wasn't really good either save for a few songs(airplane, my friends). Shoot, look at Metallica. Their first mainstream album was the black album, then following that was load. You can't go by true 2nd albums because most of the time when a band gets big, its not their first album. If you want to be technical, fine you're right. Hell, if Unexp Sober hit it big next week wouldn't you guys count that as your first real album even though you have one already?

Ben said...

Well, there's nothing inevitable about a sophomore slump. But if the 2nd album's not as good, I guess it's a slump. Franz Ferdinand's aptly-titled "You Could Have It So Much Better" comes to mind. As does Jars of Clay's "Much Afraid."

OWM said...

well even if the music is good on teh 2nd album(be it an actual 2nd or mainstream 2nd) if the sales aren't even close to the first then its a slump. Lets face it the Music industry is about selling records first, good music second.

Aaron said...

First, thanks for the mention of my blog and my review. To be fair I only used the sophomore slump term because I was reviewing at 2am and needed a jump off point. I don't think the sophomore slump exists as often as it's claimed. There are of course cases that could be claimed on either side. I agree that many of the cases of the slump are a result of inflated expectations or a band diversifying their sound beyond radio-friendly formulas.
The perceived slump can occur despite the band growing musically and putting out a better record

In my opinion in the long run a musically-sound album will overcome a perceived slump given enough time.