About seven years ago, I saw Low play with Iron & Wine at the McCarren Park Pool one lethargic summer night. The gentle yet intense melodies and heartfelt murmurings of harmony blended perfectly between the two bands, though their sounds were distinct. They brought out the best in each other, and I will always remember it as a fantastic show.
I'm reminded of that night because both bands have released interesting new singles in the past day, one consistent and one basically bewildering. While Low's thumping lullaby pretty much sounds the same as ever, Iron & Wine suddenly sounds like the horn-laden, jittery, in-your-face dad rock that Belle & Sebastian started cranking out a few years ago and never stopped. What's going on here? And is it worth getting upset?
I remember reading a review of Iron & Wine's The Shepherd's Dog that asked, "How long is he going to keep re-making the same album?" But for a musician whose main instruments of expression were his carefully spun log-cabin confessions and some gentle string-sliding, that seemed a little harsh. It wasn't the same album, because the stories were different. Essentially, I don't think he needed to reinvent himself, because like many folk singers, his simplicity was deceptive, and most importantly, he was good at what he did.
The new album, Ghost On Ghost is mostly R&B and jazz, with just a hint of folk rock. It will most likely get a lot of play on alternative/indie radio and our dads' iTunes playlists. The single he released, "Grace For Saints And Ramblers," sounds uncannily like "Sukie In The Graveyard" off The Life Pursuit.
The rest of the record has John Mayer jazziness laced throughout, and a crooner smoothness that's wholly uncharacteristic. Is Samuel Beam happier? Belle & Sebastian got happier, too, and their music suffered. And just look at what happened to Morrissey. Do we want our favorite "sad bands" to suffer perpetually, so they can keep making excellent music?
Low, on the other hand, is still finding existential angst to line their music with, and when they can't, they turn to political suffering (see Drums and Guns). Like other well-established bands dating back to the 90s - bands like Yo La Tengo or the Magnetic Fields - they stuck with their initial musical instinct, altering it slightly while keeping it fresh as they grew and matured. Not everyone can pull off an earth-shattering reinvention like OK Computer, and that's, well, OK. Besides, a change like that comes with its own problems.
But what about the bands that reinvent themselves for the worse? Are we constant unknowing participants in the "Play your old shit!" stereotype? What does it take for a band's reinvention to be welcome, or even palatable?
The bands we've mentioned above follow a steady trajectory of change, but some take a sharp and totally disorienting left turn. If it's too drastically different in terms of emotion and instrumentation, fans of the previous albums may feel left behind, like there's nothing for them in the band's newer material. This is fair game for the musician; it just sucks for the fans. Belle & Sebastian is a prime example: when both Isobel Campbell and Stuart David departed from the band in the early 2000s, a significant amount of tension and melancholy evaporated from their group mentality. I don't think they could have guessed at the time just how drastic the evolution would turn out to be. At this point, one has to dig under layers of cheerful piano banging and shuffling drums to find any sliver of vulnerability, their principle attribute once worn on their sleeve. Conversely, when drummer Bill Berry left R.E.M., their hard-rocking alt-country took a turn for the darker, resulting in the transition from New Adventures in Hi-Fi to the subdued and experimental Up, which some fans are still not over. At the time, Stipe said, "For me, Mike, and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently." This is essentially what happens when a band member leaves: the band either falls apart, makes a more subdued record, or compensates by making the most bombastic music they can, trying to prove that a three-legged dog is just as good as (if not better than!) one with four legs intact.
(Don't get me wrong: I'm not hating on three-legged dogs, or even Up, for that matter. I just think bands should be honest about the change in their make-up. Denial isn't helping anyone.)
Then there's the trend that's been gaining popularity in recent years: the artistic side-project. Morrissey and David Byrne did it, and now, so are the members of most bands. Thom Yorke recently released AMOK with his new project, Atoms For Peace. The staff is not the same as Radiohead, and neither is the sound, so it makes sense to put it under a different moniker, and like his first solo record, The Eraser, it will not go down in the Radiohead discography. Some members of current bands are following the solo road: Jim James from My Morning Jacket is doing his own thing, Jack White is going solo after the White Stripes and side projects The Raconteurs and Dead Weather. Wolf Parade basically fathered, like, five side projects, and when Knife member Karin Andersson went solo, she called herself Fever Ray. Amanda Palmer seems to have a different name for her "project" every time we turn around. The point is, there are myriad methods of distinguishing musical experiments and deviations from your original band, if you feel like preserving the integrity of your group's "brand." That way, we don't have to say, "The White Stripes have really changed, man."
Low has been interesting to watch for the past seven years (since they switched to Sub Pop). They drew a lot of attention to themselves with The Great Destroyer, an album that rocked harder and faster than their previous six studio releases. Fans were a bit up in arms because they were departing from their consistent dedication to "slow-core" music, but songs like "Monkey," "Silver Rider," and "When I Go Deaf" eased their worries with their slow-core roots and sheer amount of awesome. Since that breakaway album, they've eased into more experimentation, including the effects-heavy Drums And Guns, the poppy Come On, and this year, the lush Jeff Tweedy-produced record The Invisible Way. All of these albums are not only quality, they also made sure to incorporate familiar sounds that fans would be happy to hear (on the forthcoming album, we now have "So Blue," which channels older tracks like "Weight Of Water").
So, there's one rule we've found so far: if you're going to change your sound and keep your name, make sure the new sound is better. When R.E.M. went from the lo-fi garage rock of their 80s years to the Grammy-winning polish of Out Of Time, everyone could forgive them, because "Losing My Religion" was one of the best songs of the decade. The album fucking ruled. If you're changing your sound and keeping your name, that's how you do it.
Ghost On Ghost makes me uncomfortable in the way that Death Cab's Narrow Stairs did when it followed the near-flawless Plans: if I had heard one song from either one without knowing the names of the bands, well...I probably wouldn't have listened to the rest. When a musician gives their fresh sound a new name, at least it alerts their fans to the change, so they don't come in expecting, you know...the old shit.