No band is immortal. When Blur closed the BRIT awards a few weeks ago, there was something that felt a bit weird about it. I don’t think it’s about the age of the band members. But it was something in Damon Albarn’s apathetic 90s drone, the punky 90s guitar riffs, the irreverent, shouty, 90s backing vocals. It all felt very… 90s. It seemed like a homage, a tribute to 90s Blur, performed by 2010s Blur. Which is fine. But as the large numbers “2012” flashed dubiously behind their 90s faces, it made me think more generally about a different subject – should artists stay true to the sound that earned them a fanbase in the first place, or they should evolve, experiment, and explore new genres and different sounds, even if some fans are alienated in the process?
I know I’m not supposed to, but sometimes, I quite like Keane. Their 2004 album Hopes and Fears was a massive hit, but since then, the band seemed to have made an honourable attempt to explore different sounds with each new album. Singer Tom Chaplin has said that “we didn’t want to make another Hopes and Fears. We could have easily done. We could have easily cashed in, but we wanted to be in it as artists.” Which is why it is a bit bemusing listening to their latest single, “Silenced by the Night“, released this week. It sounds like a fusion of both the Hopes and Fears and Under the Iron Sea eras – nice enough, but nothing that hasn’t been heard before. There are many fans across the world who appreciate hearing more of the same, such as the Mexican fan who comments on the band’s website that the song is “beautiful, great, a poem made music! I am very happy to have returned to their origins”. I, on the other hand, am not very happy to have returned to their origins, because it was innovation and change that produced “Spiralling” in 2008.
I also heard the long-awaited upcoming single from The Hives, called “Go Right Ahead“. It sounds to me like a worse version of “Tick Tick Boom” or “Hate to Say I Told You So“, with the same constituent parts, and a guitar sound that sounds almost identical. Part of me recognises that this is what they do; The Hives are a garage rock band, so the The Hives will make garage rock. But when it sounds like a mimicry of old songs, I also wonder whether it’s worth waiting five years for. It took them five years to copy themselves.
In contrast, some of the world’s biggest bands have managed to balance critical and commercial success by progressing and developing different sounds with every album. Coldplay have ignored the section of their fanbase calling for a return to the Parachutes/Rush of Blood to the Head era, and have tried to push their ability of creating crowd-pleasing, mid-tempo anthems into something more interesting and diverse. The development since those earlier albums has moved the band towards a sound more sonically powerful. They still sound like Coldplay – but they sound like a different Coldplay. I still like some of their older songs, but I wouldn’t ask for more of the same when something more ambitious can be reached for. It seems like a waste of talent and a waste of time. Similarly, I like “Mr Brightside” (did, before clubs monotonously transmuted it into a cheap adrenaline rush), and I like “Somebody Told Me“, but I’d much rather hear The Killers attempt to make a song like “Human” rather than stagnate in cycles of repetition.
In fact, I’d probably find an ambitious failure more interesting than a repeat of a success. There are some albums by Björk that are too experimental, and too erratic, but they’re interesting, and what it means is that I anticipate her albums more highly than those by The Hives. At least she’s tried something.
It’s easy to think of this issue of evolution as being wrapped up in the development of new musical technologies, which allow for a greater array of sounds with higher quality production. I think this is true to an extent, but it’s also true that artists have been diversifying their sound for decades, moving between genres and adapting to changes in the musical zeitgeist. Many bands have raised their legacy to another level only by having the willingness to try something different. If The Beatles had stuck to making simple and effective pop songs like those found on A Hard Days Night and Help!, instead of moving towards the direction taken on Revolver in 1966, then they would not have had procured the same kind of unique legendary status in musical history that were ultimately able to achieve. Similarly, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, one of the best-selling albums of all time, would not have existed if they had languished in the blues sound of the band’s earlier incarnation. They retained their elemental dynamics, but embodied them differently.
I don’t want artists to surrender their character into an amalgam of musical trends. I want them to find different ways of bringing their character out, by looking forwards instead of back. I’m aware that there are many fans who complain about artists not returning to the sound of their debut album, or jettisoning their fans by picking up synths. But I don’t care what instruments my favourite artists use, I just want them to evolve their sound, whilst retaining their characteristic aspects, instead of giving me something that sounds like a copy of something they’ve already done.
Change within repetition. Not repetition without change.