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

Windsor Star - - FRONT PAGE - IAN McGILLIS ian­m­cgillis2@gmail.com

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.

FRED TANNEAU/GETTY IM­AGES

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.

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