Do artists like Lorde pay price for gaps in album releases?
The four-year wait for Arcade Fire’s new album is indicative of a trend in rock that is changing the way fans relate to their favourite artists
Arcade Fire is back. And if you’re thinking it’s been a while — well, yes. It certainly has.
Picture this: in 2013, you were a teenage Arcade Fire fan entering your first year of university just as their fourth album Reflektor was released. Now you have completed your full undergraduate degree, donned the cap and gown and marched up the aisle to Pomp and Circumstance, all before the release this week of Reflektor’s followup, Everything Now.
You’ve gone through a whole life stage with no new accompaniment from your favourite band.
It’s fair to wonder aloud if there’s something wrong with this picture — a picture, furthermore, that is increasingly becoming the music industry norm. Shouldn’t instalments in a discography be more frequent than World Cups?
We’ve grown accustomed to how mega-bands — The Rolling Stones, U2, Radiohead to name representatives of three generations — adopt a relaxed victory-lap pace after they’ve amassed a substantial body of work: a new album gets rolled out every few years to go with a major round of touring and a new look.
That, with hindsight, looks to have been Arcade Fire’s MO from the start; they simply skipped the prolific early years. There’s no denying it has worked for them. In many ways, they have been a model for how to conduct an honourable career in music in the 21st century.
Still, for fans of a certain age it’s hard not to think wistful thoughts of, say, R.E.M., who released their first six albums in six consecutive years, continuously redefining alternative rock as they went.
At Arcade Fire’s current rate, by the time they get to Album No. 6 it will have taken them 17 years.
Once you start with the compare and contrast it’s hard to stop, so let’s indulge a little. For the sake of fairness, we won’t dwell on Prince, who literally lived in a recording studio. But reflect for a moment, if you will, on David Bowie’s annus mirabilis 1977.
Low and Heroes, two all-time best list regulars, were released in January and October of that year respectively. The Idiot and Lust for Life, the enormously influential Iggy Pop albums on which Bowie’s role as producer and collaborator was so integral he probably should have had co-billing, came out in March and August. Bowie also toured that year, un-billed, as keyboardist in Iggy’s band.
Granted peak Bowie is an extreme case, but it didn’t seem all that unusual in 1977. In 2017, it’s as if our very notion of time has grown attenuated. Bob Dylan’s much-mythologized “disappearance” of 1966-67 looks more like a lunch break from today’s vantage point: between Blonde on Blonde and the “comeback” John Wesley Harding lay a whole 19 months.
It’s no random thing that greatness and prolificacy have so often gone hand in hand. Stevie Wonder, on attaining financial independence at age 21, embarked on an incredible hot streak from 1972 though 1976, releasing five masterpiece albums culminating with the double Songs in the Key of Life.
The Clash released four albums — one of them a double, another a triple — from 1977 through 1980 and lots of non-album singles and EPs in the same period.
In what was arguably the golden age of the album — the 1970s — being an artist was something like having a regular job. Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Bob Marley, Al Green, Lou Reed, Aretha Franklin — an album per year, with tours interspersed, was standard procedure and it wasn’t just about getting product on the market.
It was about making regular entries in an artistic journal.
If one album showed a dip (I’m thinking of you, Van Morrison’s Hard Nose the Highway), never mind — another one would be along in a year or so, sometimes less, and the relative failures were crucial to the dramatic arc.
Continuity — the sense of a narrative, a trajectory, an ongoing relationship — is essential and when huge gaps happen, continuity can be lost. In strict calendar terms, Arcade Fire’s fourth-to-fifth-album hiatus (a period not much shorter than the period between their friends LCD Soundsystem’s official retirement and about-face un-retirement) is equal to the time between Please Please Me and Sgt. Pepper or in singles terms between She Loves You and Strawberry Fields Forever.
Imagine if the Beatles had done nothing new in between — it wouldn’t make sense.
All this stuff is an issue partly because there are signs that contemporary artists might be paying a price. Think of New Zealand wunderkind Lorde, who crashed into world consciousness as a teenager in 2013 with Pure Heroine and returned this year with the deservedly acclaimed Melodrama, with no intermediate work to chart her artistic and personal growth by.
Now there are worrying indicators her mass constituency might be drifting away: a month after debuting in Billboard at No. 1 during a slow week, Melodrama is at No. 38 and falling. That’s depressing. Lorde is a star and should be selling like one.
It’s not as if a long gestation necessarily leads to better work or even noticeably different work.
Haim arrived fully formed in 2013 with Days Are Gone; their followup Something to Tell You, released this month, represents at most a tweaking of the three-sister band’s formula. It’s a masterful and bliss-inducing formula, to be sure, but still — four years to make 11 new pop songs? Less than three songs per year?
In his book Revolution in the Head, a chronological trawl through The Beatles’ complete recorded work, Ian MacDonald casually mentions that We Can Work It Out was “the result of by far the largest amount of studio time devoted to a Beatles track thus far (11 hours).” Eleven hours!
What makes Arcade Fire’s case especially acute is they are exactly the kind of band that would benefit artistically from a higher release rate. The whole picture would be made fuller, the band-fan connection richer and deeper.
In concert, they have a history of letting their figurative hair down by performing unexpected covers, some preserved as B-sides, but most intended only for the live moment. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a whole album of those — something like Bowie’s Pin Ups or Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things?
Looking around at the landscape, it’s tempting to conclude rock has collectively decided to cede the pop-culture centre stage to R&B and hip hop, genres where keeping a step ahead of the pack is paramount and payback is cultural currency.
Historians looking to gauge the pulse of the mid- to late-2010s will learn a lot more from Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Beyoncé, Drake and Chance the Rapper than from any band and you don’t get the feeling anyone is twisting arms for new product from any of them.
I don’t mean to be some sort of finger-wagging taskmaster here. Being an artist in the late capitalist age is tough enough that maybe we should be thankful people are still making albums at all.
Starting with Napster, the whole ecosystem has changed fundamentally with the old 10:1 profit ratio between recordings and live work turned on its head.
Finally, bands are made up of people and people go through life changes. They buy houses, start families, pursue individual interests that don’t always involve writing and recording new songs.
In some cases they may find that even on days when conditions are ideal, the muse is unresponsive.
Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, answering fan questions on Reddit in June 2016, said of the upcoming album: “It’ll be done when it’s done.” That’s admirable. But if it’s done a little quicker next time, no one is likely to object.
It has been four years since Arcade Fire dropped a new album, a trend that seems to be growing in various genres with the likes of Lorde and Haim.