Last year, Interpol released their El Pintor, an excellent album filled with hooks, grooves, and some surprisingly daring vocals from Paul Banks who I’ve previously mentioned in my articles has a love for singing in an ALL CAPS MONOTONE. It was, by all accounts, a good album, and certainly their most critically successful since they released Antics ten years prior. Yet a cloud hung over the album, a phrase that was spoken with a casual grace that belies it’s endemic presence in today’s music culture: “Their older stuff was better.”
It seems that with every new release, each album is constantly compared to a mythologized past. Reflektor is good, but its no Funeral. They Want My Soul isn’t as good as Spoon’s heyday of Kill the Moonlight, Gimme Fiction, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I myself am guilty of this in my review of the Decemberists’ What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, arguing that despite being a good album, it doesn’t stand up to the dizzying heights of Picaresque or Castaways and Cutouts. Why do we do this? Why is it not enough to simply be a good album?
Perhaps it has always been like this, but it sure doesn’t seem like it. I feel like the part of us that is always comparing an artist’s newer stuff to their older stuff is the same corner of our brain that’s gotten high on lists and turned BuzzFeed into an internet institution–we make the comparison so that we can make sense of an artist’s catalogue, so that we can say with artificial certainty that Summerteeth is Wilco’s 2nd best album and The Whole Love is 4th to our friends and have the authority of a music critic.
There is something else that feeds this trend though: the Bethesda Effect. In short, we mythologize an artist’s early stuff not because it’s better, or even because it’s early–we mythologize it because it is what he heard first. I call this the Bethesda Effect because I first noticed it with video games made my Bethesda Game Studios, the makers of The Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3. Their games tend to inspire the same vehement opinions as music does; internet message boards are filled with people who doggedly argue that Morrowind is better than Skyrim, or Fallout: New Vegas is better than Fallout 3. As it happens, there is a strong correlation between which game you played first and which one is your favorite; it’s not always true, but it is true for the overwhelming majority. A person’s favorite game is the one that exposed them to that universe. It’s the one that was new and exciting. And we compare everything back to this entry point as a way to attempt to recapture that feeling. The Bethesda Effect is, in a sense, a specific mode of nostalgia.
Music is no different. People are always comparing newer albums back not to the older ones, but to the first ones they heard. Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are the first Wilco albums most people heard, and so when The Whole Love came out they became its touchstones. No one ever compared the Whole Love to A.M. or Being There, despite being released years before either of the other albums. Most people who believe that Good News for People Who Love Bad News is the best Modest Mouse album do so because it was the first one they heard, just as I most likely think The Moon & Antarctica is the best because I heard it first. These albums were our exciting entrypoints into the musical universe of a particular artist, and each new album is compared back to this point because we are perpetually chasing the feeling of ecstatic discovery.
Unfortunately, this is also wildly unfair. El Pintor was praised but largely dismissed as being worse than Antics or Turn On the Bright Lights. (Notably, my roommate dismissed it as being worse than Our Love to Admire, a widely panned album that was the first Interpol album he heard.) They Want My Soul seems to already have been forgotten, neatly categorized as “worse than Kill the Moonlight“. It’s unfortunate to see good albums be publicly rejected for something an artist can’t control: nostalgia. So the next time your favorite band comes out with a new album, try not to compare it to their previous work. Let it stand on its own, and judge it on its own: let the fact that it is a good album be enough.