In true semi-reformed emo kid fashion, I was really, really looking forward to Beartooth’s sophomore album. In general, I’m super impatient, but Caleb Shomo made me wait two entire years for their follow-up to 2014’s record-smashing Disgusting. Two. Years. To put that in perspective, it took Beartooth the same amount of time to write and release twelve songs as it took Stephen King to write three novels. Not that I’m complaining—as long as Beartooth took, I was willing to wait.
Now the album has landed, and while I can’t quite say it was a disappointment, well, it wasn’t the much-anticipated follow-up that I’d hoped for. For all intents and purposes, Aggressive is a pretty great album; the title track might be my new favorite Tooth song, and there are some other gems on there as well. It’s unmistakably Beartooth, both in sound and subject matter.
And none of that matters, because Aggressive will always live in the shadow of Disgusting. It’s hard to separate an artist’s past work from their current, and every song they release will be read in the context of their prior successes. It’s not just Beartooth, not by a long shot. Back when I was a youngin, a certain infamous rock group rose out of anonymity to release one of the most well-known, and most contentious, albums in the scene that year. It wasn’t so much that the album was a feat of musical genius, but that no one else was making that style of music at the time: heavier –core bands dominated back then, but somehow a bunch of skinny guys who looked like a KISS cover band brought rock back into the spotlight. They were a band for the outcasts, they claimed, and the outcasts flocked to them.
And then, just a year later, Set the World on Fire came out, and fans were outraged. The screams were basically gone, and in their place were radio-rock anthems. STWOF charted a lot higher, that’s true, but only because the band was practically a household name by that point. More people listened to the album, but just because people are willing to listen to it doesn’t mean it’s any good.
These are but two examples in the vast array of shitty second releases. In fact, there’s a study that examines the 80 top artists of the last few decades and ranks how severely they felt the effects of the dreaded sophomore slump. By converting reviews into a points system, they scored the band’s first two works, compared them, and found that 48 of the artists fared worse on the second album. Among those 48? Nine Inch Nails, REM, Metallica, the Beatles, Daft Punk, U2, Missy Elliott, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, Biggie Smalls, and the Doors. 14 bands, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Jimi Hendrix Experience among them, scored about the same on both efforts. Only 13 groups (16%) improved: Madonna, Run-DMC, Lady Gaga, and Led Zeppelin are all part of that exclusive club.
80 bands isn’t a very impressive sample size, but it at least indicates that the sophomore slump is more than a myth. A scholarly paper from Scripps College (because of course someone’s written a thesis on this) that looked for connections between a band’s genre, the number of years between the first and second albums, and how successful the release was. I would not recommend reading all 31 pages of this, because around page 20 the researcher realized that nope, there’s pretty much no relationship, and that artists of all genres, no matter how long they wait between releases, are not immune to the slump.
But why are artists’ sophomore efforts so universally disappointing? How does it happen that an insanely popular group like the Who releases an amazing first album and then gets torn a new one by critics when they release their next? It’s not like every talented artist has one good release and then suddenly forgets how to write new, distinctive music.
Allow me to theorize here. When we (the fans) fall in love with a band’s debut, the way Beartooth gained an instant following or Black Veil Brides found notoriety, it sets the bar very high—perhaps impossibly high—for their second release. In reality, a band with just one album (even if it’s an amazing one) doesn’t have that much material to really predict what a sophomore album will sound like. This leaves the band metaphorically wedged between a rock and a hard place:
- The band can either make the same sort of album and stay with what they know, in which case it will seem derivative and just not as mind-blowingly awesome as their first. This is the path Beartooth took and saw lukewarm results: a lot of critics liked it, since it had the same aggression (no pun intended) and energy as Disgusting, but when you get right down to it, all the new songs are rehashed versions of their older ones.
- The second option: the band can attempt to change up their sound, in which case everyone will freak out and/or compare it to the first album anyway and wonder why the hell they didn’t just stick with what worked in the first place. Black Veil Brides tried this, and while by no means a flop, STWOF was a blow to fans who expected a We Stitch These Wounds sequel and instead got disappointing radio rock.
Maybe it’s just one of those things where unless you have a really, really great idea, your second album will be average at best. On the other hand, if you know that fans aren’t going to love your sophomore album anyway, you can do pretty much whatever you want with it. Want to make an acoustic album? Do entirely Spice Girls covers? Read Shakespearean poetry over drone metal? Go for it. Total freedom. Better that your album is remembered for some weird shit than not be remembered at all.
But seriously, do the Spice Girls thing. Your fans will thank you.