The principle of ‘top billing’ has melded into many shapes throughout music history. The ancestor of so many descendingly fonted -palooza posters is, of course, the marquee hung letter by letter in front of bright white lights, or maybe even as far back as the town crier. Regardless, the reason a band gets the cultural nod is not always as glaring. Chronologically it could be that your inoffensive sound was the toast of the segregated town, or a promoter heard you busking on Ashbury, or your music wasn’t a phenomenon but the message fit the AIDS concert. It could be that you tagged along with bigger punk and grunge acts. You may have been milking a hit single or fulfilling the public’s desire to replace a god (Robin Trower comes to mind). Lots of bands had several great albums lost to the glut of a booming genre (Manassas comes to mind).
Compared to such a rich history, it feels almost silly to discuss recent bands like The Temper Trap and Kings of Leon. Their main narrative is that they were firmly ‘it’ and headed for permanence, to the point one could envision their trajectory. They weren’t bound for superstardom necessarily, but it seems far more of these mid- to upper-tier rockers fizzled out in the aughts than in the past. These vanishing acts are the Houdini All-Stars.
Album: Broken Bells
Charting: Gold, 3 singles in Top 100.
This electro-folk fusion hit the airwaves, expectedly, like a Shins album with a gloomier crunch. Many critics didn’t bite, with the album averaging 71 percent; the critics are stupid.
Released in 2010, it captured the freneticism of digital millenials without being groaningly self-aware. Parsing the lyrics is like our version of a black-and-white thriller of a lonely man on the run from an unknown pursuer. I got the sense that the man on the run felt responsible for a grave offense that wasn’t technically a crime—an emotional crime, of sort. It is very much an album in the vein of Calvinho’s The Light Years, about a man on his best behavior only because someone 100,000,000 light years away is watching him.
As a solo Mercer project, this album would be fine— like ‘outtakes of Neutral Milk Hotel’ fine. It’s the way Danger Mouse distorts and harshes just the right notes that creates a dissonace, paradoxically drawing us closer to the lyrics. When this figurative fugitive turns to look back at his pursuer, it is always with incredible ire. He views the past as a cruel trick, a thing in which he is not altogether culpable despite his guilt, a large seductive system that’s trying to ultimately destroy you. I fucking love this album.
Where Did They Go?
After the Disco released in 2014 and reached Number 5 on the Billboard 200. One would think that the world still remembered Broken Bells, based on that, but culturally I think it’s safe to say the shine wore off. I was most interested in the sound of a collision between Danger Mouse and Mercer; AtD is as though they both tried to play to their idea of what ‘Broken Bells’ should be. It feels experimental like the coherent final product of much trial-and-error, not like the dynamism of the experimenting itself.
It wouldn’t be fair to call it pandering; it’s way, way, way too good to be that. But is it true exploration, as Broken Bells was? If the following band’s next album was a total disavowal of the success, this feels like the opposite. AtD revels in the acceptance of Broken Bells into the music industry—not that they had an uphill road to being liked in the first place. It uses the goodwill earned from the first album to further Bells’ technical prowess and, at best, you could listen to AtD to better appreciate the foundation of the album that got them there. As an addition to the canon of the Broken Bells we thought we were getting, it comes up chill but short.
Verdict: Admirably tried to extend the goodwill, lost the origin of the magic.
Album: Oracular Spectacular
Charting: Platinum, 3 enormous worldwide singles.
Look, there’s only one apt comparison here: to college kids during 2007-2008, MGMT was U2 in the 80s. A few songs each year become large enough to transcend genre preference. Like a Virgin, Ice Ice Baby, fucking Wagon Wheel… MGMT had three on one record.
What makes Oracular so spectacular, if memory serves, is its zeitgeist competition: LMFAO and Let It Rock (ft. Lil Wayne and that white dude you forgot about). The former took off as the Escobars of irony at its rolled-dollar peak; the latter punched you in the face until you liked it. MGMT spoke from the position of young people who had had as many benders as they could take. Now they wanted what the college kids had just left behind: home.
In a way, it covered every longing, from hedonism down to the lobby of Maslow. I honestly don’t think I’ve heard an album that positioned itself in such a way. You have your moody alt bands looking for hope in a sea of shit, the ones who believe life plus alcohol is roses, the ones who just need to recover from a recent emotional stabbing. MGMT was a little of everything. They captured so many facets of pop without sacrificing too much of any genre, a truly authentic life experience.
Where Did They Go?
Nothing could be more evidential that they understood the human condition than the release of Congratulations. Which is to say, they sabotaged themselves for the hell of it.
It could be billed as the disappointing album you never actually heard. Thus talking about the songs won’t do much good, so let’s hone in on the intent: they wanted this to fail—from a commercial perspective, anyway. Rebelling against expectation is the very essence of rock and roll; I don’t fully understand what they were rebelling against here. Oracular didn’t sound like a shiny bubblegum album. It sounded like some highly proficient kids found a sound and how to plunge it into the everyman’s veins. It really seems like this boils down to insecurity, and maybe that’s harsh, but that’s how it adds up, akin to how Time to Pretend commiserated success distorting reality.
MGMT are fully human musicians, so the impostor syndrome in Congratulations makes sense. While they thought the album would be something they got out of their system – just to prove they could escape the box they created for themselves – the truth is, for all its shortcomings, we like humanity and severely disapprove of those who eschew it. I wonder if they could have made a comeback, had their first album really been the airy pop project they thought they were undoing with Congratulations. Would we have been more apt to forgive? Did we see too clearly what they are capable of?
The duo has stated their disdain for touring on several occasions— and I myself had the displeasure of watching them not give a shit at Coachella. It makes me wonder if this is a jaded front, or if the bitterness stems from the early miscalculation. But most likely it seems MGMT just had something searing and powerful to say in Oracular; the stardom was a symptom.
Verdict: Self-immolation for fear of being exposed.
Foster The People
Charting: Platinum, 5 singles in Top 50.
Like their thonged Party Rocking compadres, Foster the People started in the advertising sector. There is a sheen to the album that goes beyond tightness and rhythm. You can hear talent between the notes, sure, but also hours and hours of conversation about mixing the master. I wasn’t exactly sure how to classify the sound; like most people, I just knew immediately that I liked it. It was like a Tarantino movie in the way the different styles came together. More surprisingly, the mezcla was not just something for the cutting edgers to appreciate. Six singles were officially released and it should have been eight (with ‘Miss You’ and ‘Warrant’).
If MGMT tapped into a subterranean commonality in their lyrics, Foster The People found a throughline in the beats. It’s hip. It’s also something that might arrive from a degree in World Music. (You’ll excuse me for not making a joke about that field, as an English and Film major.) They put their extensive knowledge to use as a kind of subterfuge, as this is the sonically cheeriest album listed so far while also being incredibly dark. For God’s sake, they made a smash hit about Columbine! Isolated incident, you ask?
Broken Jaw: ‘I had been broke down from my enemies/Holding a piece of what’s been left of me… When you find and heal my broken jaw/Lyin’ near where I slayed your hero.’
Helena Beat: ‘Sometimes life it takes you by the hair/It pulls you down before you know it/It’s gone and you’re dead again… Yeah, yeah, I’m alright/I took a sip of something poisoned but I’ll hold on tight.’
Houdini: ‘Got shackles on, my words are tied/Fear can make you compromise/With lights turned up, it’s hard to hide/Sometimes I want to disappear.’
Call It What You Want: ‘We’ve got nothing to lose/You better run and hide/Yeah you’ve crossed the line/I’ve got a knife behind my back/We’ve got nothing to prove/Your social guides give you swollen eyes.’
Let me reiterate that this is a pop album. Like, with choruses and commercial viability. If you submitted the lyrics to a record company, they would ask when MCR left their label; yet if you’ve heard the album, you can only read them with a singsongy tune in your head. It’s marketing qua art at its finest. To my recent recollection, only The Format could twist words so morose into a chewable album. (RIP. Please reunite.)
Where Did They Go?
Man, who knows. Supermodel charted well in the U.S., and to their credit, they are the first of these three bands who aggressively sought the original success. (Broken Bells modeled After the Disco after Broken Bells, but with almost no urgency.) If I had to take a guess, I would put it like this: you’re telling a story to a group of friends. The story itself is not the real highlight, it’s the fact that you’re a wonderful raconteur. The little details, the way you emote, and the physicality in telling it are what engages your audience. Mark Foster must have heard the outstanding acclaim for Torches and thought ‘Yeah, good, they dug the darkness of it.’ No. I dug how you disguised the darkness, how you took me to the dark places with a smile and a handshake.
This is to say, Supermodel is an objectively angry album and the beats aren’t sufficient makeup. It hates the pillars of capitalism to the point of hating itself. One suspects it has as much to do with Mark’s original jingle writing job as with Foster the People’s travails. So the question is not whether they can make a comeback; with an album like this as a bellwether, do they even want to?
Verdict: Should probably build a time machine, set to 1993, become a ‘Fuck Corporate’ punk band.
Mumford and Sons
Album: Sigh No More
Charting: Number 1 album
Verdict: Still around but damn they got stale.
Album: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Charting: Gold, 2 singles in Top 5, another in Top 30.
It’s my belief that everyone actually has two break-up albums: one to feel the sadness and another to remember that things will be okay. The former for Chris O’Toole: Interventions and Lullabies. The latter: este.
I’ve combed through the lyrics several times—that’s a lie, it came out seven years ago and I still know all the words. Phoenix always positions the love interest at the center of the song. Even before it mentions love, you know that’s where they’re headed; and it can get a little ominous, lyrically, but it’s reassuring to know you’re being funneled toward hope. For this reason, Phoenix was able to provide the most unexpectedly great concert in a small bubble tent at Mile High Music Festival (RIP). I like going to some churches despite a weak-at-best connection to religion because those people truly and purely believe in something. In an unnatural heat, we huddled as a tiny enclave for a fairly popular band and sang all the words, cognizant of a journey through the rough patches in life, all arriving at the same secure and secular place.
The crowning aspect of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is not its Cadillac-chic guitar chords. It’s how scatterbrained the lyrics are. You can never really maintain a train of thought after a break-up, which might be what makes it the most difficult to find your way out. ‘If only I could follow this to its conclusion, life would make sense…’ I guess it’s good to know that pop bands understand this, that the songs can be structured as more than platitudes. Phoenix might be closer to a koan.
Where Did They Go?
Sofia Coppola claims another victim. Kidding. Kind of.
Full disclosure: I just couldn’t bring myself to re-listen to more than the listless, alien singles from Bankrupt! for research. Phoenix may continue to exist. Phoenix in its current state, as a non-pop band, does not have a reason to exist. This is selfish, yes. It’s also not wrong.
As far as how I feel about it, I would feel a similar offense to Jonathan Franzen announcing his next book would be in the spirit of Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson. When you have a profound moral intelligence, please don’t channel the rambling of Jim Morrison. Publish a novella or put it on Soundcloud. Or hell, go solo, because half of Phoenix’s discography is now a departure from who they were meant to be, which makes it that much harder for the label to put resources into a third attempt. All of this is selfish, but we have the right to want to discover who we are through deceptively simple pop.
Verdict: Going through an identity shift and startlingly close to pulling it off.