Why are debut albums often an artist’s most enduring masterpiece?

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I am going to take a leap of faith and assume you are familiar with the term “second album syndrome,” or, as our friends in the land of the free sometimes call it, the “sophomore slump”. In the music world, this usually pertains to the second album released by an artist that fails to live up to expectations. We may regard these follow-up releases as cursed objects, but since expectations must first be raised before they’re burnt to cinders, the phenomenon often rests heavier on the laurels of masterpiece debut albums.

During my recent conversation with Adrian Utley, the guitarist of Portishead, I called his band’s lack of productivity into question. The formidable trio has only blessed its fans with three studio albums over three decades of sporadic activity. While each is, in my opinion, a consummate work of art, Dummy, the Mercury Prize-winning debut album of 1994, endures as the apical masterpiece.

When setting their sights on a follow-up to Dummy, Portishead became intensely aware of the infamous second album syndrome. With great expectations mounting, the Bristolians took three years to create the follow-up, writing, orchestrating and producing meticulously. “Although there wasn’t massive pressure from a record company – nobody’s ever interfered with us really – I think it was personal pressure within us, going, ‘Christ, we can’t do that again. We can’t repeat what we’ve just done,’” Utley explained.

The 1997 self-titled second album was certainly no Dummy, but it built upon Portishead’s established sound with an appealing set of songs apt to avoid the fabled slump. Discussing the intense three years between 1994 and ’97, Utley noted that they had initially intended to be a studio-based band with just a one-off album in mind. It was only Dummy’s success that seemed to necessitate the ensuing world tours and additional material.

As they tentatively returned to the studio, Utley and his bandmates were anxious because they had “used up so much inspiration and stuff in one go”. In this admission, Utley made the first of several points that answer my titular question: debut albums showcase the raw talent and creativity of artists eager to make their mark on the musical map, one that may have been brewing for many years. 

Like Portishead, most artists pour their heart and soul into the first major release. Perhaps not so much in David Bowie or The Rolling Stones’ day, but today, the debut album is often a make-or-break situation, thanks to tight budgets and diminishing patience among record labels. If your first and only album wasn’t a masterpiece, that’s probably why we’ve never heard of you.

Assuming you scraped by with a pleasing debut album and still have some creative energy in the tank and a couple of ideas to rub together, I’m afraid the hurdles don’t stop here. An artist’s first national or global tour supporting a debut album will often draw the most unified crowd. As soon as the second album arrives, there is a comparison point, and the cult following is divided in two. Even if the follow-up is great, one camp will laud the budget-enabling refinement and artistic progress while the other yearns for more of the same. An example of this is the division Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino and Car have imposed among Arctic Monkeys fans.

Arctic Monkeys and Portishead were fortunate enough not to endure too much creative pressure from their labels, as indicated by the former’s last two albums and the latter’s 2008 curveball, Third. However, some artists aren’t so lucky and might find themselves acquiescing to the commercially driven demands of record labels.

Above all else, debut albums will often evoke feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality among fans. Those who have been there from the start will often carry a haughty sense of superiority, thus bestowing greater value on earlier releases. This ties into my final point: early albums are usually more personal and locally resonant. Before the pressures of commercial success and record label expectations, artists tend to write candidly from their experiences. Under the influence of fame and fortune, pop stars become increasingly distanced from these roots. In Alex Turner’s case, it was less Ritz to the rubble and more Meadowhall to the Moon.

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