The biggest album launch of 2021 began with a social media statement tacitly assuring fans that nothing had changed. Adele was once more in a state of heartbreak – “a maze of absolute mess and inner turmoil … consumed by my own grief” – and that the contents of her album 30 would reflect that, as mired in romantic misery as its predecessors, 25 and 21. It was the musical equivalent, she said, of a friend who comes over “with a bottle of wine and a takeaway” to discuss the disastrous state of your love life.
The second-biggest album launch of 2021 was preceded by its creators proudly announcing they had written it “absolutely trend-blind”. Abba had traversed a considerable musical distance over the course of their original career, buffeted by the shifting musical trends of the 70s and early 80s – from the clompy Europop of their debut album to the sophisticated, chilly electronics of The Visitors, by way of glam and sleek disco – but Voyage would offer them preserved in amber, exactly as they were in the late 70s, unspoiled by any musical trends from the 40 years since their split.
Elsewhere, Ed Sheeran’s fourth solo album = was not built to startle fans or cause detractors to reconsider their position – whatever you already thought of him, positive or negative, you could find evidence to support your view – and Lana Del Rey released not one but two albums that, like every Lana Del Rey album, consisted of variations on the same theme. More morose, glacial ballads, more ne’er-do-well boyfriends who “never give nothing back”, more ruminations on the dark side of fame, more musical evidence of her love of Mazzy Star, more lyrical assurances that its author is a bad girl. You could construct an argument that she has honed her aesthetic over the last decade, but she’s certainly not dramatically overhauled it. And then there was Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, as one critic put it, “an 86-minute omnibus of all things Drake”. The listener confronted with its stew of self-pity, braggadocio, passive-aggression and solipsism could have complained that we had been here before, many times, over the course of Drake’s career, but there didn’t seem to be many dissatisfied customers: the album broke first-day streaming records on both Apple Music and Spotify.
Perhaps what people want from pop music is reassurance and comfort rather than startling novelty
There was a time when artists who wilfully repeated themselves were the subject of mockery – think of all the jokes aimed Status Quo’s way in the late 70s and 80s, and the snarky comparisons to Status Quo lobbed at Oasis once Britpop’s shine wore off – or when continually doing the same thing was a sure-fire way to truncate your career. You didn’t have to be David Bowie or Prince, constantly reinventing yourself in such dramatic style that …….