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The overrated virtue of musical evolution


A while ago I was interviewing a band about their forthcoming album. When the topic turned to inspirations and influences, they simply rattled off a list of sounds that were wildly unfamiliar to their oeuvre to date. The chat was less about concepts, feelings and atmospheres and more about sonic developments. This has happened in more than a few interviews I have had with bands in the process of establishing themselves and it always comes as a bit of a worry. 

In most crafts, you get better as you go along, but it is an oddity in modern music that a fair few bands don’t seem to surpass their debut albums, and even more seem to falter, plateau and then hit the downhill when their fourth or fifth record comes around. Sometimes this is driven by a desire to cash in on commercialism once that artistic well has run dry and there’s a mortgage to be paid, but it also occurs when the old tenets that made a band original in the first place are substituted for sounds that presuppose music ‘evolution’ but essentially trade genuine originality for a facsimile borrowed from some other band. 

Quite a lot of the acts who have survived the falter of the fifth album – as I will now refer to this folly – have done so by not really evolving in a musicological sense at all, but rather honing down the corner of creativity that they already held down. You might not like them at all, but AC/DC are a paradigm of this philosophy. Their thundering style is utterly unmistakable which implies a sincerity and uniqueness, but it also shows that they hammered that point home. 

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Their seventh studio album, Back in Black, was both a critical and commercial high point for the band that appease fans to the utmost and saw them at their musical peak. It is now among the ten best-selling records of all time. It sounded pretty much like every record that went before it. Like them or loath them, AC/DC knew what they were about—they were only ever going to rattle the rafters with rock ‘n’ roll all night, so they stuck to their guns to such a frenzied extent that they never became stilted or a pastiche of their former selves. 

The king of the evolution was, of course, David Bowie. He achieved musical development like no other. But he too knew what he was all about. As he told Joe Smith in 1987, “The Ziggy thing was worth about one or two albums before I couldn’t really write anything else around him or the world that I wanted to sort of put together for him.” But most acts aren’t one-shot cartoon characters. Different rules apply and Bowie’s chameleonic brilliance sets a dangerous precedence. 

The same goes for Bob Dylan who also had to move out from an explosion he created that threatened to consume him. Thus, bands may well point to the Bowie quote that perfectly encapsulates them both: “Never play to the gallery. Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.”

That is a brilliant quote, and its message holds true when it comes to creativity, but a few of the finer details have been lost on some. Firstly, never forget what put you in front of the gallery in the first place. Dylan and Bowie were both iconoclastic radicals who burst onto the scene and challenged society from the get-go and it remained the centre of their work. Even as they turned their back on the gallery, they were staying true to their atavistic backbone of going against the grain.

However, their constant evolutions were not borne from sitting there thinking, ‘Okay, well let’s try to sound like this on our next record’. That was certainly part of it, but it came after the idea, as opposed to forming the impetus for a manufactured sound change. 

Many modern acts have brilliantly navigated this in a similar fashion. Once again, regardless of your opinion of them, even the most contrarian of critics would have to concede that to date, every Arctic Monkeys record has shown a marked shift in every department. Nevertheless, you could remove the vocals and you’d still somehow be able to tie ‘Brianstorm’ and ‘One Point Perspective’ as sporting the same signature. The same fingerprint could also be identified on anonymous lyric sheets belonging to Mr Turner. 

In short, development and fresh ideas are absolutely essential for any artist of any description. However, the term ‘evolution’ is often misinterpreted as a necessity to change in some way, rather than a natural desire to explore. First and foremost, you should always try to sound like yourself—individualism is the triumph of modern culture, if your singular expression was once celebrated, then cling to that with your fingernails as you think about going near a synth. And look at your cinematic heroes too, the Coen brothers will be the same singular Coen brothers forevermore, and that is something to celebrate as a bankable triumph not bemoan as stilted.

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