Branching Out

by: Douglas Grant

A fan’s loyalty ofttimes becomes challenged when an artist chooses to take risks. We ask…..Is this fair?

Fandom is a strange phenomenon. When you’re talking about a business, or even an individual trying to build a brand around themselves, a fan’s loyalty is based on the relationship established with that business, where a mutually satisfactory service has been rendered. Assuming quality control is consistent, that fan will always walk away happy and willing to talk about the experience with a friend or associate.

Now, when you’re talking about being a fan of an art form, particularly music, things get a little trickier. Artists have something that they need to say to the world, and can only hope that what they produce builds up a loyal and self-perpetuating following, a following made up of individuals whose tastes are closely aligned with the artists’ work. It’s quite a rewarding experience for both parties involved when this type of relationship is established, but every now and then a funny occurrence takes place: Somewhere along the road, artists will attempt a broadening of their horizons and explore new territory, and oftentimes—to the dismay of the artists—their fan base will be divided. One side is made up of loyal fans who hold fast to the belief that the artists they have listened to for so long can do no wrong. But the other side is made up of fans who are unmovable in their beliefs that they’ve been let down. This latter side consists of those who’ve come to expect a certain style, or sound, from an artist, and they can be very unforgiving when someone they’ve listened to for years has suddenly strayed from that sound that made them fans to begin with. These are usually the kinds of fans who are quick to opine that a musician or band—aside from financial gain or mass exposure—has “sold out.”

Sometimes a positive byproduct of this expansion of artistic expression is that a new fan base is created, but, rest assured, this fresh side-base will meet with opposition from those who claim to have “been there from the very beginning.”

This article is made up of a few snap-shots of musicians who in the last twenty years released albums that created these very schisms in their fan base. I will try to remain neutral. I know what it means to purchase an album from an artist who’s been on a three to five year hiatus, only to be disappointed with what I was listening to after such a long wait. But also, I do respect when musicians refuse to be confined within a certain classification of music, and they either want to try something new, or want to return to their roots.

I knew something was wrong when, in 1997, I discovered Primus’ Brown Album, and there were no clay sculptures adorning the cover. I gave the album a listen and was disappointed with how one dimensional the album sounded. Les Claypool, who was on the verge of heading into uncharted territory on his own, claims that the album was an attempt to revisit that sound that the band had made a name for itself with in the days of Suck on This and Sailing the Seas of Cheese. Critically speaking, the album falls flat in this regard, and was received with a lukewarm response at best. The band’s new drummer, Bryan “Brain” Matia, cannot be accused of having influenced Primus’ sound, and yet their attempt to go back in time to that early, raw and organic period seems just a little too forced. Perhaps this was their time for reflection before they moved on to their more ambitious projects, Rhinoplasty and Antipop, before separating entirely and pursuing solo projects. However, fans still hungry to see how the band had matured linearly since 1995’s Tales from the Punchbowl had very little patience for this minor hiccup in Primus’ career. In retrospect, the fans have very little to complain about. Primus produced two more studio albums and three more EPs since Brown Album, and enough solo projects between the three members to keep loyalists happy in one way or another.

DJ Shadow is known for musical incoherence, and his 2006 album The Outsider is definitely a testament to this notion. But unlike his previous albums, The Outsider stands out as a disappointment to many longtime fans because of its attempts to appeal to the club goers and the party scene. And there’s no denying that Shadow definitely dabbles in this facet of pop-culture night life with The Outsider, but listeners sometimes only hear what they want to hear. True, The Outsider is a little more poppy and upbeat than what one would come to expect from Shadow, with tracks featuring artists who are a questionable fit for his style, but this really only happens in the middle part of the album. The elements of progressive rock, folk, jazz, and funk are all still there; you only need to remain patient and listen for them. However, if you allow them to be overshadowed by DJ Shadow’s wider-in-scope ambition here, then they certainly will be.

I generally don’t listen to R&B, and there is nothing more offensive sounding to me than a voice being processed through Auto-Tune. This being said, I was, at first, bitterly disappointed with Ghostface Killah’s 2009 Ghostdini Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. The album is such a deviation from what we’ve come to expect from Ghostface that it almost comes as a shock in how delicate it is. But then you listen a second time, and then a third, and you come to realize that this is something that he needed to do. Here, he transcends two types of music that share a common ancestry, and opens doors to R&B listeners who may have, in the past, been reluctant to embrace the Wu-Tang Clan’s hard-hitting and darker brand of hip-hop. For this, you almost have to applaud Ghostface. He’s matured so much musically over the years that it only makes sense for him to step outside our—not necessarily his—comfort zone. And fans from back in the day will have just enough of that raw, early sound that we’ve come to love, such as tracks like Guest House, to give him a pass if the album didn’t exactly measure up to their expectations.

This has all been leading up to what prompted me to write this piece in the first place: Deerhunter’s Monomania. Although bloggers all over the web gave the album an overall positive rating since the album’s release a few months ago, the general word-of-mouth consensus makes the reception of the album by longtime fans a little bit more debatable. Deerhunter seems to have gone down the same road as their front-man Bradford Cox’s solo project, Atlas Sound, in what appears to be a blatant attempt to redefine the band’s sense of self. Produced with eight-track equipment, the band seems to be trying to go backward rather than forward, with a garage band sound that almost feels like a throwback. Cox, a strange and eccentric individual, has always been outspoken, and he makes no apologies for the direction Deerhunter has taken in its endeavor to establish itself as a great American rock band. And why should he? Just because we’re not getting another Cryptograms or Halcyon Digest doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respect the band’s need for experimental growth, even when it seems like a big step back.

Therein lies the problem, doesn’t it? We, the fans, have developed certain expectations when it comes to the music and the artists that we love. When these expectations aren’t met, we become very vocal about it, oftentimes scathingly so. The whole artist-fan relationship becomes unbalanced, and sometimes we never recover. We go and find someone else to listen to, or simply reminisce about the old days before the artist took that terrible wrong turn. The real question is whether or not the fans have the right to make such harsh judgments. It was, after all, these same fans who helped to facilitate these artists’ rise to prominence, and they feel they are owed something more. But should we limit the acts that we’ve come to love just because of our sophomoric desires for everything to stay the way it was? This would be a very unworthy disservice to the artists themselves. Everyone has a right to their own opinions, but I think we should cut these musicians a little slack when we feel that they don’t deliver. Chances are they’ll return sometime down the road with that same sound that ushered us in in droves, as was the case with the first three artists cited above. And if we can separate that one album that let us down from the artists’ overall musical careers, focusing on the albums that made us fans to begin with, we might just stop and acknowledge our reluctant commendations of the artists’ grander vision and risk-taking.

One reply on “Branching Out”
  1. says: Kelly

    Interesting discussion. I think this is the reason many authors will assume a pen name when branching off into a new genre. Good article!

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