A few things I should mention before we begin: I am not an actual album doctor. I have practiced album medicine in this space previously, but I am not a licensed practitioner. What I deal in is strictly nontraditional, off-the-grid, Griffin Dunne in Dallas Buyers Club–style healing. This is why I am offering my services to six artists in need of album doctoring free of charge. They can choose or choose not to accept what I’ve prescribed. Either way, I am not responsible for what happens after this.
Also: As a music critic, it’s normally my job to try to understand and contextualize the choices artists make, not lament the choices they don’t. But as a music fan, I can’t help but wish the following albums existed. It’s fun to imagine that the exact record you’ve dreamed up might actually come true.
OK, now let’s save some careers.
The diagnosis: There have been conflicting reports in recent weeks about whether there will be a new U2 album in 2014. First Billboard cited “a source close to the project” who intimated that U2 was pushing the LP and support tour back to 2015, to further tinker with super-producers like Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder. Then a few days later a Guardian report sourced “a spokesman for the band” who insisted the record is still on track for this year after all. (The Guardian also says Danger Mouse remains the head producer in charge.) What isn’t in dispute is that Bono has been publicly wrestling with whether U2 can still be a relevant band 34 years deep and counting into its recording career. Those doubts appear to be slowing down the making of the album, which will be U2’s first since 2009’s No Line on the Horizon when (if?) it comes out.
The prescription: Let me address Bono’s concerns at the start: No, U2 is not a relevant pop band in 2014, nor will it be in 2015. In pop terms, U2 is extremely old.1 But U2 is still a very good live band and (Oscar-nominated treacle aside), Bono and the Edge can still write good U2 songs when they’re not trying to pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist. This might be an unpopular opinion, but I liked How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and the most chorus-y parts of Horizon (specifically the underrated “Unknown Caller”). U2 has shown it can lean on craft to compensate for the dearth of fresh ideas that afflicts every legacy act at this point in its career.
U2 does not need to reinvent the wheel on its next record; it just has to make the spinning feel energetic and maybe a little unpredictable. Overworking wannabe hits with hit-making architects doesn’t seem like a way to get there. So, here’s a new plan: Set whatever you’re working on aside for now. Put the Edge in a dark room with a case of Guinness for four days, or until he bangs out a dozen or so riffs. His guitar parts should be no more sophisticated than his parts on “Twilight” or “Rejoice.” Anything the Edge feels slightly embarrassed about sharing on the grounds that it’s too simple, that’s the stuff you keep for sure. Then give those demos to Bono and allow him no more than 12 hours to come up with lyrics. Book a Dublin club, bring in Larry and Adam to bang out some quick rhythm parts during sound check, play for whoever is at the club two hours later, record it, and release it as a “surprise” album one week later.
Will this album be the next Achtung Baby? Probably not. It may in fact be awful. But it would make U2 sound like a band again, and not a multinational corporation. At the very least, it would clear the palate for the Danger Mouse record.
The diagnosis: It’s now been nearly five months since Reflektor was released. Can the human race finally come together and admit it is the Be Here Now of the ’10s, only with less cocaine and more congas?2 Not that I was ever a fan, but the passage of time has made Arcade Fire’s “world’s biggest band” record seem only more bloated and less lovable. Whatever crimes you want to accuse Noel Gallagher of for overloading every overlong track on Now with strings, choirs, guitar solos, more strings, Johnny Depp, etc., at least he didn’t also reference Black Orpheus or launch into tiresome critiques of Internet culture. Even if you like Reflektor, can we agree that Arcade Fire could stand to be a touch less megalomaniacal on its next record?
The prescription: In October, Arcade Fire performed a new tune called “A Band With My Friends” (a.k.a. “I Dreamed a Neil Young Song”) at Young’s Bridge School Benefit Concert. It was simple, a little ragged, and a lot more enjoyable than anything on Reflektor. Now, unless Arcade Fire wants its next LP to be a triple record based on The Decalogue, there is really no other choice but to pare back a bit. This band simply can’t get any more expansive. To use Arcade Fire’s oft-cited hero Bruce Springsteen as a template, it’s time to follow up The River with Nebraska. Based on “A Band With My Friends,” Arcade Fire could pull off a stripped-down, campfire sing-along-style joint with previously untapped grace.
The diagnosis: Last seen at South by Southwest getting puked on and audibly disappointing the junk-food executives who paid her to perform in front of their corporate logo, Lady Gaga is in the midst of a down period. But she’s still one of the best and hardest-working pop stars on the planet. She also has a genuinely good sense of humor, which made 2013’s joyless Artpop all the more disappointing and downright confounding. In just a few short years, Gaga went from prankster to full-on pomposity. Lady Gaga needs to sound like she’s having fun again on a Lady Gaga record.
The prescription: Unlike virtually all her pop-diva peers, Gaga owes her success as much to touring as to hit songs. Even as she’s become one of the most famous singers on the planet, she has kept up a rigorous road schedule that puts her inside hundreds of arenas around the world every year. So, for all the conceptual claptrap that weighed down Artpop, Gaga at her core is a live entertainer. So, why hasn’t she put out a live record yet? For most artists, live records are a stopgap, but for Gaga it could be a unique opportunity to showcase her singular mix of postmodern pizzazz and old-world show-business super-pizzazz. Sort of a cross between Kiss’s Alive! and Judy Garland’s Live at Carnegie Hall, is what I’m picturing. In fact, half the record should be recorded at Carnegie Hall, and the other half at Detroit’s Cobo Center. If those venues aren’t available, somewhere on the moon should suffice.
The diagnosis: Britney Spears is 32 years old, which seems impossible because I believe she’s been a huge pop star for about 67 years. While Britney is still a young woman, her career has entered middle age, and 2013’s Britney Jean did little to clear the stale-air smell. She’s even doing residencies in Las Vegas now, which is normally a preamble for retirement (or pop obsolescence). It’s a shame, because this is when Spears should be at her most interesting; considering the life she’s led for the past 15 years, there’s a bevy of richly bat-shit experiences to draw from. But on record at least, she’s more robotic and difficult to empathize with than ever. At this rate, Britney will be married to an ATM and raising a family of Duracells by the time she’s 40.
The prescription: The most frequent complaint about Britney Spears records is that she never seems to be fully present at the controls. She’s more like a movie star who is cast to play variations on her persona. I think it’s time for her to step out and finally play a knowingly ridiculous version of Britney Spears verging on parody. I’m picturing something akin to “We Can’t Stop” or Spring Breakers: a horny, hedonistic, hilarious, and harrowing descent into pure pop, assisted by trap-rap maestros like Mike Will Made It and DJ Mustard. This record should vomit candy, champagne, and vomit. It should be a real blast but also irredeemably evil.3 If Spears isn’t comfortable being a human being in her songs, she should at least be the most colorful android she can be.
The diagnosis: Does anybody dislike Kelly Clarkson? I imagine many (if not a majority of) people wouldn’t classify themselves as fans, per se. But in the realm of pop stars, Clarkson seems to inspire nothing worse than indifference. She has probably recorded at least one song you like or even love, and none that you hate. That’s an incredible track record for the inaugural winner of American Idol, a show millions of people either love or hate with a passion. Clarkson won over those who considered the Idol association a stigma with 2004’s “Since U Been Gone,” one of the most universally appreciated4 pop singles of the decade. What made “Gone” so appealing to the anti-Idol, pop-averse crowd is that it was a legit rock hit at a time when rock songs had stopped becoming hits.
The prescription: Indie was supposed to become the new alt-rock in the ’00s, but it never happened. You could pin that on a load of different factors, but here’s one I pulled out of a hat: The potential indie hits from that time didn’t have a singer who could really sing them. Enter Clarkson. Just as covering “Since U Been Gone” once was the populist move du jour for mid-’00s underground acts, those underground acts could offer a wealth of material for Clarkson, whose voice is equally well suited for pop, country, R&B, and rock. I want to hear Clarkson do Modest Mouse’s “Float On.” I want to hear her do LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.” Get Spoon’s “Turn My Camera On” and Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells” on there, too. Kelly Clarkson could be Conor Oberst’s Linda Ronstadt.
The diagnosis: Unless you’re the right age — let’s say between 28 and 43, give or take a year or two — Weezer’s career arc might not seem like a matter of concern. To people who are older or younger, this band has probably always sucked, or at least been inconsequential. But if you are in that age range and care at all about ’90s rock, the state of Weezer’s career has been a cause of abnormally intense concern for at least a decade. No matter how many songs Rivers Cuomo indifferently turns out with titles like “Pork and Beans” and “I’m Your Daddy,” there’s still hope that one of the most gifted pop-rock songwriters of his generation might pull it back together and come up with another batch of funny odes to D&D, surfing, and sexual frustration.
The prescription: Cuomo recently announced that Ric Ocasek — producer of 1994’s “Blue Album” (yay!) and 2001’s “Green Album” (yay?) — will helm the upcoming Weezer record. This suggests a conscious return to the band’s roots, which is not a bad strategy, though I’d suggest a slightly different direction. The Weezer LP I’ve played the most lately is 2002’s Maladroit, which resides (with the “Green Album”) in the demilitarized zone of Weezer’s discography between the unimpeachable first two records and the polarizing post–Make Believe output. A lot of casual Weezer observers forget that Maladroit even exists. But for me, Maladroit represents the road lamentably not taken: It’s the closest Cuomo ever got to writing full-on metal songs that also sought to placate the emo kids who joined the fan base after Pinkerton became a cult sensation. (If Jimmy Eat World cared about K.K. Downing, it would have written “Slob” before Cuomo did.)
At the time, Maladroit disappointed fans and was considered a commercial flop, inadvertently pushing Weezer into the wacky quasi-ironic mall-pop rut of the next several records. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear (to me, anyway) that Weezer would be touring with Queens of the Stone Age had it continued in a Maladroit-guided direction. Weezer could’ve been my generation’s Cheap Trick, rather than my generation’s Weezer.5
So, please, I beg you, Ric Ocasek: Put them back on the Maladroit track.