Some of the best music from the past 20 years has come from artists coming off debut success, hungry for more. Guest writer Leo Culp’s The Sophomore Series column looks at 21st century albums that prove the phrase “sophomore slump” is outdated.
Concept albums are the sign of a great musical mind, but are very rarely attempted on an artist’s second album. In the third installment in The Sophomore Series, we look at Tame Impala’s Lonerism and FKA twigs’ MAGDALENE, and how sophomore albums have become a place to overcome the greatest hurdle in album-making.
Before we start, let’s get one thing clear: Concept albums aren’t projects with some half-baked idea behind them.
They are way more complex, marked by music and lyrics that build through a central theme. They tell stories, they explore emotions, they are more than just a collection of songs. Simply put, they are about “something”, not “anything”, and the music should complement the emotions and sentiments of the artist. With the explosion of music released in the last twenty years, concept albums have lost the sort of reverence they once had (maybe because people are prone to call projects “concept albums” when they just aren’t). Many artists release them as a part of their regular discography, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But with a level of saturation in the marketplace, it’s understandable these projects are rarely as focused or monumental as the What’s Going Ons and Ziggy Stardusts of the past. Granted, that’s a high bar. Even if it’s as hard for people to reach that level of harmony between theme, sound, and lyric as it once was, it’s harder to be surprised by what these projects have to offer.
FKA twigs (Tahliah Barnett) and Tame Impala’s (Kevin Parker) debuts were perfect genre albums: Collections of great songs that play to the very best of their musical style (electronic and psych rock, respectively). They’re messy yet exact, and exhibit what makes these artists great: sincere lyrics and wavy, all-encompassing production. With their second albums MAGDALENE and Lonerism, though, they reach the same concept-album-harmony that What’s Going On and Ziggy Stardust do (even if they don’t reach that same level of otherworldly musical greatness). Both albums look at the idea of “isolation”, but approach it in very different ways. Barnett opts for an album built on the loneliness of silence (and how that silence is filled) by focusing on the tragic story and symbolism of Mary Magdalene. Parker’s album mirrors the conflicted mind of someone who can’t fit in, looking at the ways one can feel misunderstood, misrepresented, and ultimately alone. “Tame” and “twigs’” sophomore outings link music to theme, and theme to the artists themselves. Concept albums are the sign of a great musical mind, but are very rarely attempted on an artist’s second album. With these records, though, Barnett and Parker make you wonder just how far their potential can reach, and how many great projects like these they have in them.
And I gotta bide my time
as a face in the crowd
I know that I got to be above it now
I can’t let them all just bring me down
– from Tame Impala’s ‘Be Above It’
Tame Impala’s sophomore project Lonerism drifts between different points of anonymity, like even those closest to the subject of the songs don’t fully get him. He seems to lag behind this “greater collective” he’s imagined. For his debut Innerspeaker, Parker camped out on the Australian coast; with the exception of some outside aid mixing, mastering, and adding other small instrumentation, he wrote, composed, recorded, and produced the project himself. While Lonerism was also self-produced, the context could not have been more different. Much of what became Lonerism was recorded during down-time while touring. These experiences dictated themes developed in the album. How can someone who plays in front of thousands of people feel alone? Is this hurt leftover from the past? Will it persist?
Innerspeaker is a made-up word for the way music just comes to Parker, and how you could hook up a speaker to his brain and a whole song would emerge. If his debut showed the songs he thought through, Lonerism shows the subconscious realities he is struggling to overcome. Parker is stuck between wanting acceptance from those around him and understanding that’s ultimately not important. He’s on the outside looking in, and keeps rethinking which side is best, each song representing a different view of this feeling. “Music To Walk Home By” centers around a potential relationship that fell to the wayside, and “Elephant” is about the Perth bands that never received success they expected. Most songs circle around Parker and others’ shortcomings, showing the idea of “potential happiness” is a dangerous, morose ideal.
In conversation with Interview Magazine, Parker said a lot of the preliminary sounds of the album were recorded on a handheld recording device. So, it was “getting recorded all over the world. There’s a guitar take in Vienna, or a vocal take in the aeroplane from Singapore to London. I’ve got my studio at home so a lot is being done in Perth.” Lonerism is free flowing, but the scattered geography of the recording pronounces these themes of loneliness. He seems to be in distant, yet direct conflict with the things troubling him. This translates to the music, as wavy synths and guitar chords bash against thick electronic drum and bass sounds. Light, pop-influenced melodies and background vocals contrast with gritty psych rock. Each sound has a foil, and brings the subtle confrontation Parker has with the outside world to life. Like waves on a beach, each sound has a time to shine before it drifts to the background, with a new and equally interesting sound taking its place. Lonerism is its own little world. The best albums, let alone concept albums, are able to achieve this, and whatever “concept-album-harmony” I can bring up doesn’t make sense unless you actually listen to it.
“Sun’s Coming Up”, the album’s closer, doesn’t neatly fold together things and reveal a renewed, secure Parker. If anything, it’s another point of contrast. It starts with a sparse, waltzy piano ballad, with a distorted guitar solo occupying the second-half of the song. Nothing is resolved, nothing is renewed. It’s the only ending that would make sense. Concept albums are like a tripod of theme, lyric, and music, and Lonerism wouldn’t work if one leg was taken away. It’s a time capsule of where Parker was during a stressful tour, depicting a man who wants to be alone, but still yearns for a sense of belonging.
I didn’t know that you were lonely
If you’d have just told me,
I’d be home with you
I didn’t know that you were lonely
If you’d have just told me
I’d be running down the hills to be with you
– from FKA twigs’ ‘home with you’
Like Parker, Tahliah Barnett spent the time after her debut going through personal trauma and confusion. After her debut album LP1, she went through a public breakup with Robert Pattison, and had six fibroid tumors removed from her uterus. She felt misunderstood by the public and beat down. Her sophomore outing MAGDALENE is her response to this trying period. In a press release, twigs wrote:
“I never thought heartbreak could be so all-encompassing. I never thought that my body could stop working to the point that I couldn’t express myself physically in the ways that I have always loved and found so much solace. I have always practiced my way into being the best I could be, but I couldn’t do that this time, I was left with no option but to tear every process down. But the process of making this album has allowed me for the first time, and in the most real way, to find compassion when I have been at my most ungraceful, confused and fractured. I stopped judging myself and at that moment found hope in ‘Magdalene.’ To her I am forever grateful.”
Finding comfort in the story of Mary Magdalene allowed twigs to reinvent the way people perceived her. Famously misunderstood, Mary Magdalene is seen more as the woman in Jesus’ shadow than someone he found comfort in. Many dilute her role in Jesus’ life, and have tainted her image and metaphorical meaning through years of political manipulation. Barnett discovered peace in her lowest moment, MAGDALENE representing the bottom of the well. After public scrutiny, the project reflects the peace she found in Mary Magdalene’s symbolic meaning.
So much of MAGDALENE is built on emptiness. Whereas Lonerism shows the conflict of brought about by being misunderstood, Barnett focused on the solitude it brings. Much of her debut LP1 was like Lonerism, hinging on powerful, dominant electronic melodies and rhythms. On MAGDALENE, the opposite is true. You’re waiting for the sweeping drops and booming bass of the past album, but they don’t come. It’s bare by comparison, allowing twigs’ whispers to pierce through. The dramatic sounds of her debut have left her, and she is left to pick up the pieces. Barnett was stripped of so much comfort, and this album is a testament to that aching feeling.
In each song, twigs explores the pit she found herself in, like she’s asking questions to an empty room. She may not get the answers she deserves, but asking the questions is a cathartic practice in itself. The lyrics read like her diary, giving a glimpse into her despair and eventual rebirth. Even though there are barely any mentions of Mary Magdalene (outside the track of the same name), her influence on the project is inescapable. They are tragic figures, and Barnett explores the meaning behind this woman’s dignity being stripped away over the years. However, while much of the album is tragic, there is a growing sense that these days are behind her. She has gotten to the other side, and used this project to cope with the fallout.
As concept albums go, MAGDALENE shows the unbelievable results that come when theme is lawfully abided by. Barnett said she found this meaning at her most “ungraceful, confused and fractured”, and the album listens like this as a result. twigs found this sense of belonging in a time when she felt unwanted. This shared loneliness brought out the best in her, an album that pitted her against the world.
Genres to Concepts
In past columns, I’ve dedicated a little more time to the sound and ideas of artists’ first records. But in the case of Parker and Barnett, they weren’t figuring things out with those projects. Instead, they showed they had genre conventions and songwriting mastered. Concept albums are perhaps the hardest “type” of album to pull off. If the premise, or lyrical content, or composition is faulty, it looks more like a group of ideas than anything else. In some ways, concept albums executed the right way stand alone in discographies, and are disconnected from the albums beside them. With these albums, they showed they could do whatever they want; they had gotten over the biggest hurdle in songwriting.
Tame Impala has released two projects since this offering: Currents and, most recently, The Slow Rush. Both have threads that run through them, but not in the holistic, uncompromising way of Lonerism. MAGDALENE is FKA twigs’ most recent album. It shows her at a new peak, in a mode she had not ventured into previously. While themes of loneliness are strewn throughout both of these artists discographies, this was when those ideas came to the forefront. We can see the intended direction of artists through their second albums. For Tame Impala and FKA twigs, these albums showed the world of music the two of them would be staples in the industry for a long time, and will keep creating career defining albums in the meantime.
Leo Culp is currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Media/Journalism. He hosts a local radio show in Chapel Hill, and loves watching Liverpool soccer and Carolina basketball. He is always trying to find something new to learn about music, and is a proud Atlantan.
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