Why The First Album is Usually the Best Album

They say you get your whole life to make your first album, but your second, only a fraction of that. Which I think speaks for how many first albums are better than their follow-ups, if not much of the music that many artists release after they initially debut.

The truth is, it’s very rare that an artist’s music gets better with age. Most musicians peak early. I don’t have any science to prove this, I just know that it’s true. I think most music fans would agree (but then, this is the internet, so please do, tell me if I’m wrong).

Go to any concert nowadays, even ones by bellwethers of the music business, like the old fogeys on the classic rock circuit, and while they may have new records out, they’re mostly playing stuff they made when they were twenty years old. It just is what it is.

I think a lot of this has to do with biology and the circumstances of life. I would imagine that if you were to look at any artistic field, be it music or writing or painting or film or even technology, you’d probably see that the most interesting work, the work that really pushes the boundaries and seems to come from a very pure, honest place, is the early work.

It could be that the emotions that an artist feels between the ages of 15–20 are the ones that most people relate to. There’s a sort of juvenile quality to art that is created at that age. It’s not quite mature, just mature enough to be good, and yet it is at least somewhat better than amateur — it’s good enough to be unlike everything else, which sets it apart.

An article at Slate which I find a little long and a little too complex to summarize here basically says the most obvious thing: that many people have important life experiences in their late teens and early twenties, which is the reason why they reminisce so longingly over the music they heard during that period of their lives.

What the article fails to account for is the musicians themselves, who are often just naturally expressing whatever it is that they are going through at that point in time. Now, after they’ve made that first record, if they are successful, chances are their lives are going to become a lot more complex. They’ll have places to go and people to see and expectations to be met.

More often than not, considering those changes in their lives and careers, artists usually end up dropping the ball. It’s much more evident these days, when artists begin accumulating small armies of fans when they are in the nascent stages of their development, because almost as soon as they can figure out how to make records, they’re uploading them to YouTube and SoundCloud (R.I.P.).

When these artists get discovered, it often feels that their follow-up work seems more sophisticated, more polished. That progression may be natural, one that they themselves are invested in, but it can also feel as if they are going against what it is that initially brought them attention. In early work, there is often a rawness that people are attracted to, and when that gets taken away, the music tends to suffer.

In this, I think it’s often better that certain artists continue living and working in the ways which initially got them through the door, though as one ages and one’s life gets more complicated — emotionally, physically and otherwise — it may be entirely impossible to remain that simple and true.

And, if one’s music does gets more sophisticated, more polished, that isn’t to say that isn’t still simple and true, only that as they mature as musicians and people, it isn’t always guaranteed that their fans will mature as well. The reality is, most fans get hung up on what they fell in love with in adolescence, and that’s kind of where their maturation ends.

reply below or email: paulcantor@gmail.com

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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