It is one of the most cliché elitist replies when someone asks you if you like a band. Typically the speaker is trying to show off that they've listened to the band longer than newfound fans. In some instances, however, it's a genuine opinion void of hubris.
I confess that I've used the phrase for both reasons. Recently a friend asked me to go to see The National with him and I found myself saying this exact thing. I love their albums Alligator and Boxer, but found myself bored with their two latest. They weren't bad albums, just disappointing. They didn't offer anything better or remarkably different. He finally convinced me to go and I'm grateful he did. The show was great and breathed new life into the very songs I'd been lambasting.
Eating your words is a humbling, yet educational experience. In this instance, I'm not sure if it was the energy of the live show or casting new attention to songs I didn't give a fair shake in the first place. Because our opinions of music can be largely influenced by time, place, and circumstantial emotion, I created a list of bands that I'd previously christened with the mantle of their best days being behind and hope to give them another listen.
- Weezer - When Weezer returned from hiatus in 2000, I was beyond excited. I picked up the Green Album the day it was released, then promptly sold it to a used record store less than a year later.
- Modest Mouse - Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica were like nothing I'd ever heard...and haven't heard the likes of since from Modest Mouse.
- Death Cab For Cutie - I stumbled into a show they were opening at a bowling alley and left with We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. That record rarely left my player for a full year. This might be a case of "time & place" subjectivity, but everything after that felt too polished and melodramatic.
- Foo Fighters - I still own a copy of their debut album that I bought in middle school and The Colour and the Shape showed even more growth musically from Grohl's Nirvana days. Unfortunately, as their popularity grew so did their propensity toward mediocre modern rock.
- The Black Keys - Similar to my feelings about The National, these guys are still great musicians and write fun music, but it doesn't compare to the gritty blues rock they played on The Big Come Up or Thickfreakness that left you in awe when you discovered they were two skinny guys from rust belt Ohio.
Who are your "I like their old stuff" bands? Would you rather have a band continue to make albums similar to the ones you love or challenge themselves in new directions?
I often wonder how I would feel about a new album from a band I love if it had been the first thing I heard from them. The more we become familiar with something, the more we like it. The new album is always compared to the one you've listened to 1000 times and because it is not familiar we think we don't like it as much.
On the other hand, bands do change their sound, often in less risky directions. When you're unknown, it makes sense to create something new and different - it's the best way to make people notice. After you've developed a following you take fewer risks as you try to preserve what you have and you get boring. And there's regression to the mean - a great album is likely to be followed by an album closer to the band's true average ability.
I've loved Bjork since the Sugarcubes, but every time she releases a new album, I hate it for about a year, give it another listen, and generally end up enjoying it. I think we build expectations based on what we like and then can't forgive an artist who experiments and tries new things.
I do tend to like early albums, though- something about the rawness that makes it more immediate and urgent than later polished stuff.
All I can add is to listen to the Black Keys albums from most recent to their earliest release, in that order and you'll hear the procession as to how awesome it would have been for them to go from the big sound to the stripped down dou they really are. You certainly gain much more respect and appreciation of their talent and influence listening in reverse.