It’s time for my irregularly scheduled weekly blog post. I don’t know when I became a guy who blogged only weekly (not counting What I’ve Been Reading), but this schedule – if you want to call it that – is what fits into my life at the moment. Ideally, I’d let the ideas I’m writing about in this entry stew for a little while longer in my brain, but I wanted to post something this week, and I’m not confident that further cogitation would allow me to synthesize these ideas into a coherent thesis.
Earlier this week, pop-punk band The Wonder Years released a song, “Passing Through a Screen Door,” from their upcoming album, The Greatest Generation. It’s a catchy, fun song, dealing with topics that have come to be known as the band’s bread and butter: existential angst and the pains of growing up. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the band’s previous effort, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, which I named one of my favourite albums of 2011. In fact, it sounded like it could have been a Suburbia outtake. It seemed odd to me that The Wonder Years would choose to preview their album with a song that could have easily been mistaken for a lost b-side. Perhaps the band doesn’t want to scare off its fans with anything too out there, but don’t they want to signal that they’re moving forward even a little bit?
That got me thinking: album previews can have a significant influence on listeners’ pre-release impressions of upcoming albums. Artists and record company execs aren’t stupid. I think they recognize this influence. With that in mind, I can identify some of the ways in which they used the tracks they chose to release to promote then-upcoming records in order to influence the pre-release conversation.
I remember a couple of years back when Incubus released “Adolescents” to the world in anticipation of their album, If Not Now, When? It was a moderately rocking tune, straddling the line between alternative and progressive. That got me giddy with anticipation about INNW. And then, when it finally came out and was revealed to be a collection of sleep-inducing adult contemporary tunes, I was disappointed. (And asleep.) Maybe I’m getting into conspiracy-theory territory here, but I have a feeling Epic’s execs knew that they had a soporific record on their hands. Thus, they pushed for one of its few lively songs to be the first single in order not to scare off Incubus’ existing fans. I guess it worked. I bought the album, after all.
Of course, if we think of an album’s lead single as signalling mechanism, there’s also the flipside, i.e. the case where the signal actually turns out to be true. Take Our Lady Peace, for example. After the departure of guitarist Mike Turner, the band turned towards a more radio-oriented pop-rock sound, alienating the fans it had had during the ’90s. Finally, last year, after 3 widely-panned albums, OLP released “Heavyweight” in anticipation of their new album, Curve. “Heavyweight” featured a dark, moody, heavy sound, not exactly reminiscent of their previous work, but also a far cry from the bland radio-rock they had been releasing. It was a way of telling fans, “Hey, we’re back, and you’d better fucking believe it.” OLP delivered. While many – if not most – of the tracks on Curve weren’t as heavy as “Heavyweight,” they took the band’s sound to weird, unexpected places. The album ended up being on par with the band’s ’90s work, and now fans have confidence in OLP again.
But what about bands that don’t want to showcase a specific sound or vibe, but rather, their eclecticism? This was the dilemma that faced Coheed and Cambria this year when previewing The Afterman: Descension. What do you do when your album covers everything from hard rock to electro-ska to prog-metal? Easy: you release most of the tracks before the album drops. 6 of the album’s 9 tracks were out there in some form or another before it dropped, including the lively “Number City,” the bombastic “Gravity’s Union,” and the subdued “Iron Fist.” When you’re trying to sell people on your eclecticism, you might have no choice but to release a whole bunch of tracks covering a lot of sonic ground.
I’m sure that there are even more reasons to release specific tracks prior to an album’s release. I don’t claim to have any special insight into the promotional process. But it’s helpful to think about it to try to determine what a song release is trying to tell us. Is it trying to cover up an album’s lack of imagination? Or is trying to signal a return to form? Or is it part of a wider promotional effort that will become clearer as more tracks are released? Maybe The Wonder Years are trying to use “Passing Through a Screen Door” signal to fans that they’re as good as ever, without pushing them away with anything too radical that they’re saving up for the actual album release. Or perhaps they’re really just recording Suburbia Part II. In any case, I’ll find out in May when The Greatest Generation is released.