Anatomy of a Follow Up
by Joel Caris
It starts with a new CD, purchased innocently enough, and the hope that you’ll enjoy it. It follows with the initial few listens, in which you realize you do enjoy it. After that, you listen again and again, multiple times, until you start to love the CD, becoming ever more lost in the songs.The album impresses you.So many tracks are good, enjoyable, great even.It’s not the usual album in which you really like a couple tracks and kind of like a few more and could take or leave the rest. No, this is a full fledged album, pleasurable songs layered upon each other, the album interweaving and building, becoming better and better until it crashes to a close and you’re left dazed, pleased, aching to listen again.
You love this album. You love this band.After many, many listens, you eventually tear yourself away and allow a new album into your life. Yet you find yourself returning to this album, the one you love, again and again.Of course, because you love this album so much, and now love this band so much, the follow up isn’t going to come out for two or three years, maybe longer, for that’s just the way life works. You’re left with this one album that has taken over your mind, fueled your obsession, and you continue to listen to it, maybe every couple weeks or maybe every day, but again and again.Soon you know every song, every lyric, every beat, every tempo change. You put the album on in your car and you sing the first words, straight through to the last.You begin to pick out your favorite tracks and you play those incessantly, the songs finding their way onto play lists and custom CDs.You attach emotions to the songs and relate small, quiet moments in your life to specific lines. Months after you first bought this CD, you begin to play those songs to elicit specific emotions, to accentuate or alter your mood. This album is brilliant.This album is perfect. It’s integrated into your life and it’s now one of Those Albums—the ones you don’t think you could live without.One of the Desert Island albums.That’s what it has become.
A year or more passes and one day you realize that the band still exists.More importantly, you realize it’s about time for a follow up to this album that you adore, that you never grow tired of. So you research, check the band’s website, and there’s nothing. You go back to listening to The Album, waiting.A few more months pass, then maybe a few more, and eventually you one day think to check the band’s website again and there it is, the news, that small paragraph of text that tells you, yes, the band is in the studio. They’re recording.They are making new songs.
You try to hold back your excitement but fail miserably. You start playing the album for the hundredth time and you think you can’t wait the six months until the album comes out. You listen to The Album and you imagine it new, that first experience, your virgin ears being caressed by sounds that will eventually dominate you. You wait for that new album that will create entirely new emotional and musical complexities, wrapping itself into the very memories of your life, offering an integral new addition to the soundtrack against which you live.
You must have this new album.
A month or two before the album is slated for release, the first taste of new music appears.It’s on the band’s website, accompanied by text that is too subdued, the size too small, asking what you think, hoping you enjoy it.For a moment you hesitate, the excitement almost too much, and you allow a small moment of wonder at the fact that this new song—a simple new song—might actually create a physical reaction in you. How can music be this way? It is mental, not physical, and yet.It’s all the same.
You click play.
There is that split moment—between pressing play and hearing the first note, the first instrument, first strum, first word—and that moment is a small lifetime, holding all your optimism and uncertainty. Then the song begins and you listen to it almost in a daze, uncertain, wanting far more than you could ever get from a song, no matter how incredible that song might be. You want every pleasurable moment you spent listening to The Album over the last two years to be encapsulated in that one song, in that first listen, and you want an unbreakable guarantee that the full album will offer just as much brilliance as the last one did.
The first listen is so crucial and as the song fades to nothing, you feel hope.You feel a stirring.This is often the case with the first single, because the record company knows who they are targeting, and it is you. And they know what you want. You want the last album, but new.You want the same, but different. You want all the familiarities of The Album, but in a bright and new package, with artistic evolution, sure, but not so much evolution that you can’t recognize this album as The Follow Up To The Album You Love.So, often, that is exactly what you get.
But that may not be the new album.
What you do, then, is listen to the new single again and again, growing ever more agitated, coming to love the song more with each listen and, if you don’t naturally love it, convincing yourself you do. Yes, it is a good song.Yes, it bodes well for the new album. Yes, this will be the follow up you want, you need, you deserve.
Another month passes and now the new album is almost here. You’ve listened to the new single, you’ve listened to the old album, you’ve read the band’s website and you know that they’re really excited about the new album, that they think it’s a real step forward for them, that they’re eager for everyone to hear it and they really hope you love it. Then there is the moment when the album is there, within reach, waiting for you. It happens one of two ways. Either it’s a Tuesday and the CD is actually in stores, or it’s some random day a few weeks before the album officially comes out and it’s been leaked online, just waiting for you to fire up bittorrent. Either way, you have it, purchased or downloaded, and you’re ready to listen. Now is that moment in which the fear really sets in. It’s ridiculous to fear a new album, especially from a band you love, but you do fear it. You fear that it will not be the previous album. You fear that it will not be a step forward, but a giant step back. You fear that you will never again feel what you felt with their last album, when you realized you did not just like it, but loved it. You fear that this band only has one great album to offer you, not two, not three, not dozens.
The single may have left you hopeful or may have left you leery.It doesn’t matter. No matter what you thought of that one song, you are afraid.You’re afraid that the band you love, that you have developed unending love for, is about to disappoint you. And you can’t bear that thought, that they will let you down after two years of doing nothing but lifting you up.
But there’s no option here. You have to listen.You have to find out.
You put the CD in your car stereo .Or you queue it up on your computer .Or you hit play on your MP3 player .Or you slide the CD into your DVD player and wait for your surround sound speakers to kick into life.
You hold your breath. The music starts.
That first listen, it happens so fast. The music comes and goes and by the time it’s over, you don’t know.Jesus, you just don’t know. Was it great? Was it mediocre? Was it terrible? You can’t tell. There were too many hopes and expectations and fears for you to really listen. What happened? There were songs you liked, there were other songs you weren’t sure about. There was one moment in the CD you thought was brilliant and there were two that filled you with dread. You barely even give yourself a chance to think before you start it again, the second listen, and this time you try to concentrate. You have to concentrate and you have to know, is this another Desert Island album?
It’s a terrible situation, you see, because all you want is for this to be a new version of that first album, but it can never be that. Remember the first time you listened to that album? It was just a CD you bought, hoping you would enjoy it. There was nothing riding on it. There were little to no expectations. All you really wanted was to not regret spending your money on the damn thing. You didn’t need it to change your life. But it did, and now you want nothing less out of the follow up.Now, your first listen is with the expectation, the hope, that it will be something grand and epic, something that will impact your life. You want it to affect your mood and alter your perceptions, but it’s just another album.It’s nothing more than that first one you listened to two years ago. You just expect more and that, of course, makes it all the harder to judge it fairly.
You don’t really know where you stand with the new album until maybe your seventh or eighth listen. By that time, you have a pretty good handle on it and know if it’s a huge disappointment or if it’s acceptable—or, with incredible luck, if it’s a case of lightning striking twice. If you listen to the album a twentieth time, then chances are you love it, because if you don’t love the thing then you have to step away from it sometime between the fifth and fifteenth listen. You have to move back and digest your disappointment, alter your expectations and then, maybe, return to the album in a few weeks with the hope that you can salvage it and make it one of those albums you like, that you play occasionally, but that doesn’t change your life. At best, there are perhaps one or two songs that really hit you and that you can throw into a play list, that you can use for certain moods, but the complete album will never be one of Those Albums.
The worst part of the follow up album is that whether or not it’s a good album is often beside the point. Too often, because of impossible expectations, the follow up is a disappointment to you. There are times, though, when the follow up works brilliantly.There are times when the new album reminds you of the last album, but also gives you a new sound, an evolved sound, that is not so new and evolved that you don’t see the influences of the last album within it. There are times when you listen to the new album five times, then ten, then fifteen, then twenty and you realize that, yes, this is another album you love.I t’s not the exact same as the last album, of course, but it’s great in its own way—brilliant in an entirely new way—and when you realize that, there is a giddiness and excitement that actually makes the world around you brighter. It dawns on you that you actually can relive history, but that it’s even better than you hoped because it’s the same base excitement and satisfaction wrapped in a new package, with new twists and elements, with new pleasure points.
The lightning is striking twice and it feels just as good as the first time, but in all new areas.
Then, of course, it will be time for the follow up.
Joel gets emotionally involved with his album collection