Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quality Decline Records

I’ve been thinking about the recently departed R.E.M. lately, and listening to New Adventures In Hi-Fi in particular. It’s not their best work, and my younger self didn’t even have time for “E-Bow The Letter.” For me, it bore the mark of following Monster, a record I once despised. But I like New Adventures, quite a bit actually.

It’s not a record that’s played a part in the R.E.M. obits. It was well-received at the time, though not the commercial success the past three albums had been (all quadruple platinum). It’s been overshadowed because it’s the best album of R.E.M.’s protracted decline—a good album, but certainly a slip in quality from the amazing 1982-1992 period.

In puzzling over New Adventures, I think I’ve identified a new species of album: the Quality Decline Record. I offer this concept to the world of rock writing, to join the taxonomy of Difficult Second Albums, Stripped Down/Back To Basics Records, Sophomore Slumps and so on. What defines a Quality Decline Record?
  • Obviously, the QDR comes amid a decline in an artists' output. It's better than what follows, but it's not what the group's reputation is staked on.
    • In other words, the album is less critically respected than a group's earlier work, or has been reappraised to this status. It might be fingered out--unfairly--but it's not as cred-sapping as other decline-era works.
  • The decline must be protracted. Albums like Speakerboxx/The Love Below or Brighten The Corners aren't followed by long enough declines.
  • The QDR is overshadowed by earlier, more respected albums, and by more commercially successful ones. It's probably not well known to non-fans.
  • It stands out from other, worse decline-period albums.
  • The QDR doesn't spark a rally, or second golden era.
  • A QDR gains extra points for manifesting the qualities that become the band's downfall.
These are general principles, many QDRs may deviate.

For example, I'd peg The Rolling Stones' Black And Blue as a QDR. It follows the 68-72 classic period, is the third consecutive record to fall below that standard, and sees the Stones lazily remaining in their comfort zone (except to chase a trend on the lead single). Yet it's complicated by 1978's Some Girls, a better record, on which the band's reputation is partly staked. Still, Black And Blue isn't critically beloved, is unknown to non-fans, is worse than the groups best, and manifests the qualities that would be the Stones' downfall (allow me to throw Ron Wood into the mix here). It's an overlooked, pretty awesome record. A Quality Decline Record has to be quality, after all.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a classic QDR. So are Sly and the Family Stone's Fresh and Michael Jackson's Bad, which in those cases inaugurates each artists' decline. Other QDRs might be more contentious. Does Public Enemy have a QDR? Does Jay-Z? What about Springsteen, New Order or Black Sabbath? I would personally point to Physical Grafitti as a Quality Decline Record, but I think I'm in the minority there. Any number of late eighties and early nineties Prince albums might be considered QDRs.

Artists who had short careers aren't really eligible for this honor. And artists who have had intermittent or near-constant successes frustrate this concept--Neil Young or PJ Harvey, say. Still, I think it's a mildly helpful way of considering certain albums and bodies of work. The albums themselves are also good listens--quality records, without the baggage of classic status. They often feel like discoveries. Favorite QDRs?



    Your post reminds me of the ‘reverse standard’ described in this AV Club post and the Klosterman article to which it links. The QDR makes for an interesting entry in the artist-career timeline that the ‘reverse standard’ lets us conceive.

    I’d agree that Physical Graffiti is a QDR record, even if it has a few of Zeppelin’s best tracks. Maybe more controversial: The Replacement’s Pleased to Meet Me. (With Don’t Tell a Soul being the lowest point to which the band descended. Like Phys Graffiti, PMM has some of the best ‘Mats songs (Valentine, Can’t Hardly Wait), as well as some lousy or just forgettable ones (Nightclub Jitters, Red Red Wine, etc).

  2. Shortly after writing this post (finished a while before it went up, thanks to this borderline unworkable blogging platform), I stumbled across this:,59098/

    which strikes me as similar in some respects to this post.

    Anyways, I'm basically in agreement about "Pleased To Meet Me" being good but not in the league of the albums it follows. I'm not sure the decline is protracted enough for it be a model QDR, especially if you, like me, think "All Shook Down" is pretty good. In the context of Westerberg's entire career it fits into the rubric pretty comfortably, though.

    I think we have different favorite songs from PMM. I like "Nightclub Jitters" a lot, as well as "Skyway" and "Chilton," but prefer the Tim version of "Can't Hardly Wait" and wouldn't call "Valentine" a favorite.


    A lot of this Awl list I don't agree with, but it at least made me listen to "Valentine" with new ears. Rewards repeat listens.

  4.'s a good song, but after three listens today I still can't see why anyone would rank it so high. I love Dave Bry though, he is basically my model of masculinity.

  5. Disagree about Pleased To Meet Me not being up to Tim/Let It Be standard--then again Don't Tell a Soul is a favorite of mine as well. "Valentine" is great also

  6. Yeah, I recall you once listing "Pleased" as one of your Top 10. (On, umm, a previous blogging platform)

    It's never stood up as well for me. I like "Don't Tell A Soul" more than most, but it's still the worst Mats album.