Sometimes, even an established artist can surprise you with a release – whether that be good or bad, experimentation often occurs during the later records of a musicians career. Our writers discuss the biggest ‘left-turn’ albums that altered the musical direction of a big name and surprised fans.
Yeezus – Kanye West
When it comes to Kanye, most of his discography, particularly everything post-Graduation, could be considered a “left-turn album”. From 808’s and Heartbreak to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to The Life of Pablo, almost everything Kanye put out this past decade was insanely innovative and shook up the scene, not to mention his recent drastic left-turn into reliegious music with Jesus is King. But Yeezus is something else entirely.
“Experimental” doesn’t even begin to describe this album. The sound is almost indescribably unique for its time. In my opinion, the closest sound in the game at the time was Death Grips. Drawing from everything to industrial music to ’80s Chicago House music, the album is harsh, abrasive sonic chaos punctuated with some of the most mind-blowingly beautiful and harmonious segments of Kanye’s discography, such as the outro to ‘New Slaves’ and the gospel in ‘On Sight’. This extreme variation in sound is not just track-to-track, but often within a single track itself, and really makes every single segment stand out.
From that initial electronic screech starting ‘On Sight’, the album opener to the much calmer, soulful ‘Uh-huh Honey’ and ‘Bound 2’, the closer, Kanye takes us through a rollercoaster of sound that leaves one wondering what on Earth they just listened to. Kanye doesn’t go easy on the bars either, with some of the most outrageous verses of his career appearing on this record. From condemnations of the prison-industrial system to explicit accounts of sexual exploits to proclamations of Godhood, Yeezus has it all.
The overall message of the album is in my opinion, best described by West himself. Speaking on the sound of the album, Kanye called it “a protest to music”. I’m not going to even try to interpret what that means, but it seems to accurately describe it. Another interesting aspect of the inspiration for the album is that it was more inspired by minimalist furniture and architecture than other music. Kanye described a lamp by French architect Le Corbusier as his “greatest inspiration”.
Experimental as it was, different from almost anything mainstream hip-hop had seen before, let alone anything Kanye had made before, the album was a smashing success critically. It became the most-talked-about album of 2013, with critics scrambling to either strongly praise or lambast it. It was the most critically-acclaimed album of the year. Time and Complex called ‘New Slaves’ the best song of 2013, and Pitchfork called it the second best. In a way, Yeezus set the tone for the rest of Kanye’s career in terms of its bare arrogance and abrasiveness. Although he is yet to release anything as sonically innovative, (bearing in mind Yandhi was never released properly), an entire era of Kanye was defined by his “Ye” persona, which was born mainly out of this album.
Metal Machine Music – Lou Reed
In 1975, Lou Reed was at the height of his powers. His former band, the Velvet Underground, were being widely imitated, his albums Transformer and Berlin were on their way to becoming classics, and his last album, Sally Can’t Dance, a horn-smothered glam rock album, had been his most commercially successful. What would Reed next do next?
Release an experimental noise album, of course.
Metal Machine Music is a challenging listen. That is, if you’re expecting ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ to pop up halfway through. Rolling Stone called the album “deliberately, intensely boring”. On the bizarre liner notes Reed admits, “no one I know has listened to it all the way through, including myself.”
Challenge accepted, Lou.
The album is essentially an hour of feedback from several guitars. There are no vocals, no drums and no rhythm or melody to speak of. Occasionally things happen, but only occasionally, and these things are usually just slightly different noises. This said, the nature of experimental music is that it will sometimes work for you and sometimes won’t. Some parts of the album simply washed over me like Brian Eno at his most ambient. Others, like the last few minutes of the album, are pounding, exhilarating, industrial beats. At points I found it genuinely unpleasant to listen to.
Opinions on Metal Machine Music range from an aural assault, to a joke, to a masochistic attempt to throw away Reed’s own career, to a masterpiece, but none of these are mutually exclusive. When I was about fourteen, I bought this album as a joke present for my sister. Once she’d discarded it, I sat and listened on my own, and as the screeching panned from speaker to speaker, I was thrilled. I had never heard anything like it. This must have been what it was like when people first heard rock and roll. It was just so exciting.
For the first ten minutes of feedback at least.
After a while my dad got home and turned it off.
As Reed says, “most of you won’t like this and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not meant for you.”
Ghost Stories – Coldplay
Yes, I’ve finally decided to write about Coldplay *cringe*. This arena-filling, iconic British act have had many hits in a variety of styles, but Ghost Stories is certainly the album on which the four-piece transitioned most drastically, leaning sharply away from their acoustic roots and developing a more poppy approach to production that would be pushed to its limits (and frankly, beyond them) in later releases.
Debuting at #1 in 2000 with their post-Britpop record Parachutes, following this up with / alt-rock album A Rush of Blood to the Head, and cementing their success with pop-rock LP X&Y in 2005, Coldplay were well established and had already birthed various huge singles that made Chris Martin a global celebrity. These three releases were all fairly traditional, with fairly conventional indie-rock instruments and production involved, and Chris himself even refers to these as the original ‘trilogy’.
Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends was where the group started mixing things up, with distorted guitars, less prominent vocal sections, and large instrumentals such as the orchestral section on the titular single ‘Viva La Vida’. The commercial success of this approach, with it being the best-selling album of 2008 worldwide, likely instilled the confidence to experiment further.
3 years later, Mylo Xyloto threw layers of production on top of the guitar-driven style used originally, maintaining the essence of the original trilogy and adapting the instrumental sections used before to infuse pop into their sound, once again succeeding with massive tracks like ‘Paradise’ and collaboration with Rhianna on ‘Princess of China’ despite some critics having wavering faith in the group.
2014’s Ghost Stories changed everything, ditching guitars or orchestras for subdued synths and drum beats. Coming very soon after a very public divorce, Martin’s newest album divided critics and left some fans feeling betrayed. While musical innovation is essential, this album abandoned much of what was loved in previous work and set a dangerous precedent that was taken to extremes with subsequent releases. Delving completely into the world of pop and heavy production, and leaving acoustic guitars in the past, Coldplay have clearly garnered new fans along the way, but their sound has changed unrecognisably from Parachutes – Ghost Stories is the record where this was most obvious, significant and, in my opinion, painful.
Last modified: 28th July 2020