Ah yes, the difficult second album – there’s so much that can go wrong and it so frequently does, more often than not ending up in the shadow of the classic debut and the all important third album. The list of second albums that fall somewhere between the disappointing and the disastrous is immense. Bristol triphoppers Massive Attack are prime example of a band that falls into the former category, 1993’s ‘Protection’, despite being a nice enough album with some quality tracks, is positively lukewarm in comparison to their monumental debut ‘Blue Lines’. Florence and the Machine‘s ‘Ceremonials’ is another culprit; Iron Maiden get beyond the artwork on ‘Killers’, but it’s hardly a tour de force; ‘Van Halen II’ is but a shadow of the first album and despite positive criticism The Strokes sophomore effort, ‘Room on Fire’, was never going to live up to ‘Is This It’. As for categorical failure of a follow-up, look no further than Stone Roses’ ‘The Second Coming’ – can it get any worse than this?
Yes – Kula Shaker, ‘Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts’ – nailed that band’s coffin closed.
Actually, there’s a whole bunch of other records that were never really what you’d bought into on the debut, the list is endless; Portishead, Finlay Quaye, Terence Trent Darby, Duffy, Elastica and so on and so forth, and as we can see, failing to deliver the goods is irrespective of genre, although it has become a far more common phenomena in the days demanding instant success. It seems that the second album basically runs into trouble because of pressure resulting from the first record. Bands get caught up in the touring and the success and are too busy “making it” to get the next record written. Then there’s the inevitable come down when they find themselves in the studio under pressures of time and money to deliver a new product, but this time, barring a few leftover tracks not quite good enough for album number one, they’re starting from scratch, having spent the last few years playing to death that first batch of songs they so lovingly created. Bands get so focused on establishing themselves with the first album that they don’t have time to really think about there being a next one, let alone what to put on it. They almost need to fuck up the second album a bit to take the pressure off and get the hunger back for album number three – if there is one!
However, despite the all too common let down of a band’s second record, there are also plenty of killers. Once upon a time, artists were given the chance to develop; their record labels actually helped them progress. Bands were often signed to seven album deals, so labels were in it for the long haul – they wanted to see their artists improve and sell progressively more records. Also, it wasn’t unusual to sign a band based on potential rather than one that already had its bangers primed and ready. Blur is a great example of a band that had potential, but had yet to find its songwriting chops on debut album ‘Leisure’, it’s their second album ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ where things start coming together. Then there’s the thrash metal scene; in the beginning it was all a bit rough and ready, but by their second albums Metallica, Megadeth and the like were coming on in leaps and bounds. So, here’s a bunch of second albums that not only progressed but blew away their predecessors and quite rightly became classics.
The ultimate second album is surely Nirvana‘s ‘Nevermind’, possibly the most game changing record in history. It’s predecessor, ‘Bleach’, had hinted at the band’s potential, but was miles short of what would follow. Cobain had long harboured the desire to harness the aggressive energy of punk and marry it to more accessible melodies and the final pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place whilst writing the songs for Nevermind. Kurt borrowed the Pixies loud – quiet – loud template and suddenly not only his fury, but also his talent had a vehicle; the rest, as they say, is history.
Radiohead‘s debut album, ‘Pablo Honey’ is a fairly unremarkable affair, save for the ubiquitous ‘Creep’, which the band grew to hate; its follow up, The Bends, however, is one of the finest albums of alternative rock ever to see the light of day. The entire album is all killer, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees, ‘Just’, ‘Street Spirit’, I mean, it’s quality track after quality track that propelled the band towards the big time. They may have taken a more arty direction after the fairly conventional songwriting on display, but without The Bends and the bold statement that is ‘OK Computer’, Thom Yorke and co never would’ve gained the leverage to follow their chosen path.
If you go back and listen to the first Lenny Kravitz album, ‘Let Love Rule, you’ll here a soulful young man blending a kinda laid back hippy-like innocence into some funky folky rock n roll toons, and it’s a highly enjoyable record. The world’s one time highest paid session musician was breaking in slowly though, as on his second effort, ‘Mama Said’, he came back pimped up, jazzed up and funked up and knocked it out of the park. Fields of Joy is a ‘Stairway’ for the 90s, ‘Always on the Run with Slash is a sublime rocker; there’s quality rock pop a plenty, funky reverb on ‘Stop Draggin’ Around’; soul fueled crooning on ‘All I Ever Wanted’ and the whole album is peppered with bass groove and jazzy licks. Where did it all go wrong?
Led Zeppelin II. It’s Led Zeppelin, only more so – every song a winner. Nuff said really.
Björk shook off the Sugacubes on ‘Debut’, but it was on ‘Post’ that it all came together. This urban soundtrack remains as one of her finest albums and is jam packed with hard edged indie pop in the Icelander’s own inimitable style; from the sinister opening to ‘Army of Me’ you just know it’s going to be a winner. There’s the manic Hyperballad, the irrepressible ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, ‘Isobel’, ‘The Modern Things’, ‘Enjoy’ and so on and etc not a dull moment to be found.
I will readily admit to not being the biggest Foo Fighters fan in the world, but you gotta love Dave Grohl for just being such a nice bloke, and on his/their second album, ‘The Colour and The Shape’ he delivered the goods. Besides the killer singles ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘My Hero’ and ‘Everlong’, which are without doubt some of the most iconic alternative rock songs of the nineties, the album is imbued with a cathartic quality that runs surprisingly deep. Ok, so there’s plenty of upbeat snippets where Dave and co sound like their having a great time, but it’s the raw emotion on the ballads that really picks the scab on Dave’s then recent divorce. Besides, the emotional moving on, this record really exorcised the whole Nirvana thing and paved the way for Foo Fighters to be respected in its own right – respect. Check out this live version of ‘Hey Johnny Park’, Dave looks so young and it’s got such raw emotion.