A musician’s peak can be very dangerous. It signifies the rare achievement of a musician’s genius accumulated into its finest and most evolved form. However, it also signifies a conclusion, where the hero is expected to walk off into the sunset and have his name engraved in history. The only two ways this is possible is death or retirement, of which J Dilla and LCD Soundsystem are respective examples (though the word “premature” will forever haunt their legacy.) However if the artist wishes to continue after his peak then his integrity is truly tested. For, geographically speaking, it should all be downhill from there.
One option is to prove that one hasn’t reached their peak, but is still in the process of refinement. The most obvious example would be the idiosyncratic electronic duo Boards of Canada, who, four years after their masterwork Music Has the Rights to Children released the almost identical Geogaddi to equal acclaim. The problem with this route is that it is much like sharpening a pencil: that though it may make the effect more acute, it minimises the range of appeal, until it’s put in a drawer full of other sharpened pencil curiosities.
Another option is that, once you have exhausted one train of thought, hop on another and start afresh. In bluntest terms one can go quieter or louder. The obvious example is Bob Dylan going electric. In doing so he proved that he had achieved two peaks, as a folk musician as well as a rock musician. Perhaps the harder option is the other way around, where the musician no longer has the easy tools of noise and aggression to grip the listener. A good example of this would be Flying Lotus’ excellent 2012 album Until the Quiet Comes, which, after his dense breakthrough album Cosmogramma, adopted a softer more austere tone. He replaced hip-hop beats for a more jazzy and elusive style making it even harder to follow a rhythm, and ultimately making the listener work harder, which in turn added a new depth of intrigue to his work.
However, the paradox of this method of transition is that, when successfully executed, it reveals a radical change from the musician’s former work, while also retaining his own unique sound.
An obvious failure of the “genre-hop” would be Neil Young’s string of bad albums in the 80’s where he dabbled in so many different genres from rockabilly to electronic with as much delicacy as a fat man stuffing his face at a finger food buffet. The result was a double failure: as it made it seem that Young preferred reinvention over originality, which then tainted the integrity of the rest of his music. Secondly, the fact that none of these albums developed the genres much highlighted the limitations of Young’s talent as a musician.
However, both Young and Dylan shared a common motto that made them so unique: that you, and not your audience, define your own standards. Indeed their greatest works were formed at the greatest conflict with their listeners. Young became incredibly disillusioned after the commercial success of Harvest, and so eschewing his newly-paved path to success, created what Rolling Stone called “one of the most despairing albums of the decade,” that is the darkly beautiful On the Beach. Dylan’s rejection of his audience is even more poignant as it has been documented. During his tour for his electric triumph Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan responds to a listener calling him “Judas!” by turning round to his band and shouting, “Play it fucking loud!” before going into a beautiful tirade of “Like a Rolling Stone”.
Yet in the 21st century this rejection of the audience has become diluted since the passing of punk, where audiences would pay to be spit upon by their safety pin pierced idols. Thus the peak has become even more threatening in our time. Let us not mention the power of the internet to raise up a musician to fame then spit him out a week later into petrol station bargain bins. However, one band has managed to ride this wave very well, and that is of course Animal Collective.
Animal Collective are a musical anomaly in that they have created some of the most abrasive sounds in the new millennium, (see anything from Danse Manatee.) Yet within a decade of their career they managed to tighten their sound into a commercial success, while retaining the wildness of their original sound. This was their neo-psychedelic 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion, which surprised even the band in its reception. Such reception also created the notion that this combined commercial and critical acclaim meant that Merriweather was somehow the band’s peak. Yet each of the band’s previous albums are so unique from each other that it would be near impossible to find a clear lineage towards Merriweather. Perhaps the success was rooted on the fluke that the band had just chosen a more audibly pleasing instrumentation that time round. Speculation aside, it seemed impossible to many for AC to beat their supposed peak. Thus when their new 2012 album Centipede Hz was not as well received, many were perhaps quietly satisfied that this “peak” theory was fulfilled. The album is convoluted with radio feedback and wet sounds, and seems like a return to their older sound, yet without its former vitality.
However, despite personally not enjoying the album, what gradually became evident to me was that Animal Collective cared very little about how the album was received. For the band was built upon the foundation of making unusual and abrasive music to a small audience in a sweaty room. The only factor that has changed for them is the size of the audience. And so in refining the Young/Dylan motto, the musician does owe one thing to his audience, and that is an honesty towards his own musical genius. Or as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote: “people pay to see others believe in themselves”. And so the only true fear of the artistic peak for the musician is if he makes himself believe that there is nothing on the other side.