St Vincent stood in a hallway

Falling off: When artists lose their magic

Anticipation is an essential part of music fandom. Great records from artists we love build a sense of wonder about what they’ll do next. Most recently, I’ve felt this about St. Vincent. She recently returned with her sixth album, Daddy’s Home. She’s one of my current favourites – one of those artists who I’ll listen to anything by. But, that being said, her last album was a patchy affair, and the lead single from this one did not endear itself to me immediately. So though I love her music, I began to think she might have ‘fallen off’.

What? Fallen off… what? Let me explain. ‘Falling off’ is a term probably most used in hip hop. The genre casts a particularly prominent spotlight on rappers’ golden periods where they’re at the top of their game creatively and commercially. But eventually, they ‘fall off’ this prime position. They lose inspiration, their environment changes, they overthink instead of using instinct, they lose interest – whatever. The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to hip hop: it happens to nearly everyone, in all fields. Life is ephemeral, nothing lasts forever. And in music, when someone is about to fall off, you kind of know it’s coming.

Because conversely, sometimes you just know an album is going to be great. The singles are consistently superb, the artwork strikes a visceral note, the tracklist just looks good. The example (that I use for everything) is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Having released a classic debut album, this was a high-pressure follow-up ripe for disappointment. But in February 2015, he released ‘The Blacker The Berry’, revealed that iconic front cover, and you just knew. I remember seeing that artwork and getting chills. The resulting record was decade-defining and is one of my favourite albums ever.

Artists peak. I think back to the music I’ve loved in the last decade or so. In 2010, every song that Kanye West released in the year leading up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an event. It was the same for Arcade Fire’s singles ahead of The Suburbs in the same year – every song struck a resonate chord. Say what you want about Drake, but his pre-release songs for Take Care in 2011 were incredibly consistent. And when The National dropped ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ before the release of High Violet, well, the buzz was palpable.

But they also decline. Not always rapidly or dramatically, but tangibly – because the same excitement isn’t there anymore. Often it’s the case when the artist has previously produced exceptional work. Starting with Kanye: following a series of consistently excellent albums, I was beyond excited for 2018’s Ye. But through erratic public behaviour and his vocal support for Donald Trump, the cracks had begun to show. The high-wire balancing act that was his divisive persona looked like it was tipping, and the arrival of the unfinished-sounding album confirmed it: he had fallen off. Follow-up Jesus is King was even worse.

Drake fell off with the spectacularly anticipated Views – which turned out to be a dreary mess – and has yet to make any truly compelling record since. I finally got a chance to see Arcade Fire in 2017, but it was while they were touring the highly disappointing Everything Now, a leaden album with a heavy-handed message that suggested they too had fallen off. And with The National, I realised the appeal had gone when they released Sleep Well Beast that same year. It’s not a bad album by any stretch, but I noticed that for me, the excitement just wasn’t there anymore. It offered nothing new. Had they fallen off?

Music taste is, of course, a matter of personal opinion. Sometimes an artist has lost their way in one person’s view but to someone else, they’re very much still in their prime. Prime example: I felt that Arctic Monkeys’ 2018 left-turn, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, was an outstanding achievement – a fascinating change of direction for a band who looked as if they were in danger of becoming tired and predictable. To others (including writers on this very website), they’d fallen off and indeed hurt themselves to boot.

And some bands ‘climb back’ (someone save me from this terminology). Radiohead looked invincible to this phenomenon until 2011’s underwhelming The King of Limbs, but emphatically corrected course with 2016’s phenomenal A Moon Shaped Pool. The Weeknd returned to form with last year’s After Hours after a few years of mediocre, chart-baiting pop following his breakout trilogy. But returns to form are comparatively rare – that’s why they’re so celebrated when they happen, and exaggerated even when they don’t.

By now you’ll be in complete agreement with all of these opinions but wondering, what is the conclusion? Well, surely it’s this: artists have to evolve or die, so to speak. ‘Falling off’ is somewhat inevitable, but to ‘stay on’ or ‘climb back’, an artist can’t simply repeat the thing they did in their prime. They have to embrace the present and create something new. Trying to mine the past sounds inauthentic to everyone. Yes, it’s hard to leave former glories behind, but it’s kind of tragic to watch artists try to grasp for them. Oasis painfully did this again and again. Eminem is somehow still doing this. When he released The Marshall Mathers LP 2, people assured me that it was ‘actually good’ (it really wasn’t). It’s why when Radiohead completely changed direction with Kid A and ignored the tedious 00s music press begging them to ‘go back to guitars’, it was eventually recognised as a benchmark for popular music rather than a falling off moment.

All of which takes me back to the new St. Vincent record. A lot of the dreaded ‘online discourse’ has surrounded its questionable theme and her attitude to interviews, but on early listens, it contains a number of well-crafted songs that investigate new territory for her. For now, at least, she’s still ‘on’.

But maybe you disagree. What are your examples of bands ‘falling off’ or ‘climbing back’?

Words by Tom Burrows.

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