The phenomenon of the ‘difficult second album’ is pervasive in modern culture, to the point that the phrase is even consistently used outside the music industry. Steve Coogan uses the term here in a very throwaway manner during an interview in a way that suggests the entire audience is aware of the phrase and its connotations.
It describes the tendency for an artist’s second effort to fail to live up to the first. The reasons that have been suggested for this include the suggestion that, human nature being what it is, we build up our expectations to such an extent that any follow-up cannot help but fail. There is also the suggestion that regression to the mean might be in play; the first success might have been a fluke.
But is it real?
The sophomore slump might well be a real effect. But, as I intend to demonstrate below, it’s not necessarily an inescapable fact of the music industry. Initially it’s important to note that, of course, the public and critical response to an album is highly subjective and each person’s opinion is likely to have been influenced by other people’s. There really is no objective measure of quality, despite Rotten Tomatoes‘ inference to the contrary.
To investigate whether it is a universal effect I decided to analyse the UK’s best-selling musical artists of the 2000s. To do so, I used the critical concensus on AllMusic to create interactive, comparative graphs displaying the marks out of five given to their first and second albums. Click on the image below to interact:
As the graph demonstrates, the average score actually increases for the artist’s second albums. For the majority of these artists, at least, the ‘difficult second album’ is nothing of the sort.
There are obvious problems with my method of analysis, however. For instance, I was forced to use AllMusic, rather than a score aggregator, because even Metacritic did not have scores for some of the artists’ first albums. However since AllMusic is so widely recognised within the industry I judged it the lesser of several evils. It does fall prey to this particular trope, however, which discredits it slightly.
A second problem is that it could be said these best-selling artists became so because they bucked the trend of the ‘difficult second album’. In order to counter that, I then analysed artists chosen at random from my own music library. Click below for that graph:
While the average score for these artists does indeed fall for their second album, indicating there might be some truth to the phenomenon, it is by no means certain. For instance, more artists (4) scored higher for their second album than those who did not (3). In fact, if it weren’t for Interpol, the average would actually have stayed exactly the same.
While my sample sizes for each analysis were too small to come to any definitive answer it appears that, for music at least, the ‘difficult second album’ is a myth. In terms of the wider entertainment industry, however, it might simply be a misnomer – the much larger analysis I have started for film series indicates that what is there termed ‘sequelitis’ or sequel stagnation, is very real.
To conclude, we should be extremely glad the ‘difficult second album’ isn’t an all-encompassing phenomenon. If it were, we might have missed some of the greatest works of art of our lifetimes.