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The Album Doctor Is In

Eight prescriptions for better records from creatively ailing artists

At no time in the millennia-spanning history of human creative endeavors have popular artists been more keenly aware of what their audiences want than right now. Social media not only connects consumers directly with creators, it puts the former in the latter’s head, whether the latter wants the former there or not. This has made the concept of “fan service” both an ideal and a curse — pop culture is more satisfying in the “I’m happy because I got what I wanted” sense, but also less satisfying in the “I’ve forfeited the opportunity to discover what I didn’t know I wanted” sense. Even when the audience wins, it can feel like a loss.

Then again, a little push in a promising direction never hurt anybody, right?

This is the spirit in which I submit the following eight suggestions to musicians who are looking ahead to their next records. I picked these artists because (for a variety of reasons) they seem like they could use a little album-doctoring. And fortunately for these artists, I happen to have prescriptions that I believe will result in healthy music-making activity. Important note: I am not an actual album doctor. I hold no degrees from an accredited LP-related medical school. I am just a modest amateur healer who works out of his home. However, my counsel comes free of charge — though if any artist applies my advice to his or her next record, a point or two on the back end would be most appreciated.

Radiohead

The diagnosis: Still one of the most popular and respected rock bands going, Radiohead currently specializes in highly anticipated albums that people desperately want to hear exactly once. 2011′s The King of Limbs was Radiohead’s crowning achievement in this regard: It had its moments — the drum sound on “Little by Little” is nice — but in retrospect it seems weirdly predictable in its willful inscrutability. Let’s be honest: After two decades of pushing at the boundaries of what stadium rock can be, Radiohead has fallen into a rut of self-consciously “difficult” laptop Muzak that sounds a lot less daring in 2013 than it did in 2000.

The prescription: Radiohead’s brand is constantly surprising and challenging its audience. And yet the band’s primary mode of artistic provocation — “Hey, we’re a guitar band that plays electronic music!” — has been codified into intermittently profound shtick. (Radiohead is to rock music in the early ’10s what Hunter S. Thompson was to journalism in the late ’70s.) I suggest a radical move in a more (superficially) traditional direction. What would be more a surprising record from Radiohead at this stage in its career than an unadorned collection of simple, starkly recorded tunes played on acoustic instruments?

I’m not asking for an Avett Brothers record here, exactly. One of Radiohead’s greatest, strangest songs — “Paranoid Android” — was a twisty-turny epic that shredded the folk-rock template. We know these guys can do this kind of song well and perform it in a way that’s unexpected. Also: How awesome would it be to hear Radiohead play actual songs again — with hummable melodies and killer “Don’t leave me hiiiiigh, don’t leave me dryyyyy!” choruses — rather than the same old glitchy grooves than lead to unfortunate displays like this?

Jay Z

The diagnosis: Like Radiohead, Jay Z is standing on the precipice of his Steel Wheels career phase, where fans actively ignore your latest album so that it doesn’t interfere with their love of your overall legacy. It happens to nearly every artist eventually. Right now, Jay is like Michael Jackson after Dangerous or U2 right before the video for “Discotheque” debuted on Alternative Nation.1 Everything Jay Z does from here on out could be potentially edited out of what we’ll subsequently celebrate about his career. That includes the Basquiat-addled bombast of Magna Carta Holy Grail, which was intended to reaffirm Jay’s status as the biggest rap superstar on the planet but actually made him seem diminished and out of touch.

The prescription: In order to recapture his compromised sense of “bigness,” Jay needs to think on a much grander scale and make a record that both promotes his own history and points toward an exciting future. Here’s my pitch: Jay should make the ultimate History of New York City Hip-Hop album. Go all the way back to the beginning and utilize O.G.s like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. Then call up Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, and the surviving members of Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys. He’ll definitely want to involve A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, along with Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan. You get the picture — Jay plays the Danny Ocean role and gathers as many of these legends in one place as he can, as only he can, and turns his album into a once-in-a-lifetime event.

There should also be room for Big Apple up-and-comers like A$AP Rocky, Action Bronson, and Joey Bada$$ — make it as inclusive as possible, but with Jay as the figurehead. He’ll be a curator as much as an artist, which based on Magna‘s aesthete-oriented lyrics seems to be where his head is at now anyway.2

Adele

The diagnosis: Adele is the last person who seems to need help. Based on the runaway success of 21, Adele should be the one dispensing advice. But after gorging on her music for the past several years, the world could potentially be getting a little bored. The trad-soul sound of her first two records has instant appeal for a wide range of listeners. But since everybody already owns those albums, following up with yet another collection of big-voiced ballads telling tales of autobiographical woe would almost certainly result in diminished returns. The time has come for Adele to modernize.

The prescription: By “modernize,” I mean that Adele should shift her musical reference points from the late ’60s to the late ’70s. Feel-good throwback disco songs have owned 2013, but “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” would just be appetizers for the kind of monster dance-floor diva record Adele could absolutely crush if she chose to go that route. It almost seems too easy: Get Pharrell Williams and Paul Epworth in a room, order in some takeout, lock the doors for a few hours, and voilà! Two or three of 2014′s most overplayed songs will magically materialize. Adele has already demonstrated that she can be a modern-day Dusty Springfield — how about reviving Gloria Gaynor?

Shania Twain

Shania Twain

The diagnosis: It’s been 11 years since she last put out an album, so let’s restate an important fact about Shania Twain, lest it be forgotten: There are only a small handful of humans who have ever been more popular, and most of them are dead and have religions named after them. Judging by the all-encompassing popularity of Taylor Swift and the unilateral media adoration of Haim, the Shania template is arguably more popular now (and way more respected critically) than it has ever been. Now, if only the original article could put out new music. In 2011, Twain released a not-great single called “Today Is Your Day,” but lately her recording career has been sidetracked by a two-year residency in Las Vegas. She supposedly resumed work on a new album last summer, but given her recent lack of production, there’s no telling when this record might see the light of day.

The prescription: It’s kind of remarkable how contemporary Twain’s blockbuster 1997 album Come On Over3 sounds in 2013. Come On Over is the one loaded with sass-country classics like “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and a bevy of surprisingly durable deep cuts. (Dig the handclaps ‘n’ Angus Young guitars of “Love Gets Me Every Time.”)4 I’m convinced that if Shania Twain put out this exact record next week it would sell more copies than Red and also garner a “Best New Music” designation from Pitchfork. That’s how primed the culture is for new Shania Twain music.

You know where I’m going with this: Shania must reunite with her former producer, co-songwriter, and husband Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the shadowy Svengali also known for coaxing Back in Black and Hysteria out of AC/DC and Def Leppard, respectively. Lange has also been missed lately, though he did reemerge a few years ago to produce the Shania-like “You and I” for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. The couple split in 2008 amid allegations of (Mutt’s) infidelity, so hooking back up professionally won’t be an easy task. But some things — such as the public’s ravenous desire for fresh karaoke material — must take precedence over any personal struggles.

MGMT

The diagnosis: A recent Pitchfork profile of this pranksterish psych-pop duo begins with a remarkable scene at a sold-out concert in upstate New York, where it’s clear that a sizable portion of MGMT’s fan base is pretending that everything the band has done after its platinum-selling 2007 debut, Oracular Spectacular, simply doesn’t exist. These people wear ridiculous bandannas and get excited about hearing “Kids” like the collapse of the housing market is just around the corner. (It might be the first instance of late-’00s nostalgia.) The rest of the profile is essentially about how MGMT is obsessed with alienating these people — first with 2010′s Congratulations, which seems not nearly as weird now as it did three years ago; and this year’s MGMT, which is much weirder than Congratulations but not nearly as weird as MGMT probably wishes it were.

The prescription: This is the part where I’m supposed to say that MGMT should get back to writing radio-devouring pop songs. That’s because basically every person who cares about MGMT wants MGMT to make another record like Oracular Spectacular.5 But it’s a pointless request. It’s like asking Robert De Niro to find another role like Travis Bickle — even if he wanted to do that, is there any guarantee he could still do it as well? No, what MGMT needs to figure out is a way to be strange and also be interesting at the same time. If there’s anything MGMT could learn from the Flaming Lips — a group MGMT obviously wants to be when it grows up — it’s the value of showmanship and presentation. The Flaming Lips have packaged music inside of skulls made out of marijuana-flavored gummy candy. In concert, they traipse around inside massive plastic bubbles in front of psychedelic projections of naked buxom women. MGMT, meanwhile, is still getting the hang of integrating oversize Ferrell-era SNL visual gags with its live act.

What MGMT needs is its own Zaireeka, the infamous 1997 Flaming Lips record that was composed of four CDs intended to be played simultaneously on four different boom boxes. The CD part is important — the album should be available only in physical form, as this will instantly scare off most of the Oracular-obsessed millennials in MGMT’s current audience.

Here’s how I envision an MGMT version of Zaireeka: Disc 1 is “normal” songs, Disc 2 is normal songs played backward, Disc 3 is audio from an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch captured by a handheld tape recorder, and Disc 4 is Brian Eno’s Before and After Science (which you should really just play on its own).

Bruce Springsteen

The diagnosis: When the Boss reunited with the E Street Band in the late ’90s, it was a cause for celebration — finally, one of the greatest rock outfits of all time was back together and performing and recording regularly again. Since then, Springsteen has made some good albums (The Rising and Wrecking Ball) and a near-great one (Magic). As a live unit, Springsteen and E Street remains one of the best arena-rock acts. Still, Bruce has occasionally found it necessary to work with different backing musicians, and the results have been boisterously fun (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions) or at least respectable (Devils & Dust). Having recently turned 64, Springsteen could stand to step outside the E Street Band once again and enlist some passionate (and much younger) acolytes.

The prescription: The list of rock, folk, and country acts that have paid homage to Springsteen in recent years is long and impressive: Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, the Hold Steady, the National, Against Me!, Eric Church, Titus Andronicus, the Gaslight Anthem, Drive-By Truckers, and Twin Shadow are just some of the bigger names. So, how about a record on which Bruce is backed by a different band on each track? It would be perfect for an album that spans the eras of his storied career — Titus Andronicus could provide an appropriately expansive backdrop for a Born to Run–style epic, the Hold Steady could pitch in on one of those great late-’70s ballads where hot rod racing is used as a metaphor for post-Watergate malaise, and Arcade Fire could add some oomph to the Born in the U.S.A. synth-rock callback. It would open Springsteen to a new audience and shine a new light on his past for longtime fans.

Madonna

Madonna

The diagnosis: The last 30 years of pop music would look and sound very different were it not for Madonna — on this point we can all agree. What’s debatable is what exactly people want from a Madonna record now that she’s in her mid-fifties. Do we want Madonna to make 12 songs that re-create the sound of “Lucky Star” and “Into the Groove”? Or do we want her to work with hip producers in order to “reinvent” herself?

The prescription: Actually, I’d like to see Madonna avoid dance music altogether. Instead, I think she should spotlight her ballad-singer side. Madonna’s slow songs are typically undervalued, but I think they rank among her best: “Crazy for You,” “Live to Tell,”6 “Oh Father,” “Rain,” “Take a Bow,” “Frozen,” and so on. I’d love to see her make a dark, borderline goth record reflecting the unique perspective of a pop diva several decades deep into the game. (Sort of like a Bat for Lashes record meets Dylan’s Time Out of Mind.) She can always follow it up with a greatest-hits tour, but this kind of album would be unique in her catalogue and potentially stand out as one of her most intense and rewarding.

John Mayer

The diagnosis: John Mayer still hasn’t recovered from the fallout from his 2010 Playboy interview, as evidenced by the career-worst sales for his latest (actually pretty decent) album, Paradise Valley. Or it could be that John Mayer partisans just aren’t digging the big-hatted, quasi-Deadhead, “Jimmy Buffett of the north” persona he has adopted lately.

The prescription: You know who’s doing just fine commercially? Mayer’s bro-in-arms Jack Johnson, who just scored his fourth consecutive no. 1 record with From Here to Now to You. Unlike Mayer, Johnson appears unconcerned with appearing cool to those outside of his audience. He’s simply a dude who strums easygoing folk-pop tunes that can be enjoyed at face value. That used to be Mayer’s specialty as well, and it can be again — so long as he can get a little help from some old friends. Just imagine if Mayer joined forces with Johnson and fellow chill bros Jason Mraz and Dave Matthews for a one-off supergroup. (The Traveling Dingleberries?) The tour alone would be huge, and it would help Mayer ease back to his old self.

Filed Under: Adele, Art, Celebrities, General topics, Music, Radiohead

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden