As my music taste developed in the 21st century and I began to discover new bands on my own, I often found myself rueing the day a band announced the release of their second studio album. This was because somewhere deep inside me I had decided that second albums were the key to a band’s success (or failure more often than not). I’m looking to do a low key investigation into whether this preconception is right or – as I think I will find – sorely misplaced.
The logical place to start is with a few examples of where second albums have, in fact, been well below the expectations set by the debuts. On March 17, 2008, I charged to the shops to purchase the eagerly anticipated second album from New York trio, We Are Scientists. After the ingenuity of their debut album, ‘With Love and Squalor’ I could only hope that ‘Brain Thrust Mastery’ not only matched this quality, but surpassed it. I was bitterly disappointed. There was nothing to suggest that it was even the same band producing the bland, self-indulgent songs on the second album. ‘Second Album Syndrome’ seemed to have struck the American band and their third album ‘Barbara’ showed no signs of an imminent recovery. Looking slightly closer to home, The Pigeon Detectives produced one of the most exciting post punk British albums of the 21st century in 2007 with ‘Wait For Me’. They went on the become the first British band since The Beatles to produce a second album within twelve months of their debut release. Sadly, ‘Emergency’ was unable to live up to that standard. Though ‘Keep on your Dress’ has gone on to be a fan favourite, even avid Pigeons fans will struggle to recount the tracklist of this poor second album. Much like their American counterparts, though third album ‘Up Guards And At ‘Em’ was better than its predecessor, it was unable to emulate the passion and vision of the first album. So ‘Second Album Syndrome’ is a transatlantic problem, perhaps even a pandemic.
Next, I’m going to look at bands who have perceptibly suffered from ‘Second Album Syndrome’, but who have also achieved a tangible recovery. English band, Maximo Park were rewarded with a Mercury Prize nomination for their debut album, ‘A Certain Trigger’, but that appreciation was short lived. Though second album, ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’ possessed some recognisable singles, it was widely accepted among fans that it fell well short of the mark. Despite this, third and fourth albums: ‘Quicken The Heart’ and ‘The National Health’ received widespread critical acclaim and maintained the band’s fan popularity. Whether this is down to the quality of music or front man Paul Smith’s charismatic allure is a different debate. My next example is unorthodox but fundamentally true: The Stone Roses set the world alight with their first self titled album, being voted as ‘The Greatest Album of All Time’ by two separate polls (Observer, 2004; NME, 2006). ‘The Second Coming’, however, was an infamous flop. Fans and critics turned against the band and drove them to an acrimonious break up, one that back in 1996 everyone thought was the end of the Mancunian foursome. Wrong. 16 years after that well documented split, The Roses were back with the fastest selling rock tour ever. If that doesn’t constitute a recovery then I don’t know what does.
Finally, I’m going to look at bands whose second albums have been better than the first and have provided a platform for the band to grow from. Oasis may have shook the UK with ‘Definitely Maybe’ in 1994; but in 1995 they shook the world with ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’. Even today, Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back In Anger and Champagne Supernova remain the band’s most loved tunes. ‘Morning Glory’ sold a record breaking 347,000 copies in its first week on sale, spent 10 weeks at number one on the UK Albums Chart, and reached number four in the US Billboard 200, cementing the Gallaghers’ places in Britpop legend. From it, Oasis were able to progress and would go on to produce another five studio albums before a well documented break up in 2009. Muse are another band who break the mould of ‘Second Album Syndrome’. Debut album ‘Showbiz’ achieved moderate success, reaching number 29 in the UK Album Chart, but was completely overshadowed by the follow up ‘Origin Of Symmetry’. Muse’s second album soared to number 3 in the Chart and was certified platinum not long afterwards. Moving from ‘Origin Of Symmetry’ the band have produced another four studio albums and picked up numerous awards and accolades along the way. Obviously nobody told them about the taboo of the second album.
I would like to continue and examine in more detail the relationship between second albums and success of bands the world over and from all time frames, but sadly that would constitute a dossier. From the examples I’ve given I think it would be safe to assume that second albums are an important but not vital factor to the success or failure of a band. It is possible to recover from a poorly received second album and it is also possible to create a second album that surpasses the debut. As fans I think it’s time we realised this and didn’t pin so much expectation on a band’s follow up.