It’s not easy to follow up a successful debut album. It never really was, but one can argue that nowadays it may be even harder to do so. In the ‘60s and ‘70s there didn’t seem to be that much pressure on a debut album – The Beatles had already released 6 records by the time Revolver came, while Pet Sounds was The Beach Boys’ ninth album. Recently, however, there seems to be a cult behind an LP debut, as though every new record will be next Dark Side of the Moon or Thriller, with agents and record companies signing contracts and agreements and traveling with unreleased copies of the “next big thing” handcuffed to their wrists. If the debut record ends up being a success, artists tend to feel increased pressure as they begin wondering if they will be able to capitalise on that achievement and live up to the expectation, or if they will release the follow-up record everyone expects, after such a successful first album. This is what is sometimes referred to as “Second Album Syndrome” or the “Sophomore Slump”.
Full disclosure: I am not a famous musician (nor even a non-famous one), so I can only speculate as to why this syndrome so greatly affects those gifted in the art of music, but there does indeed seem to be a lot of artists who succumb to the pressure of, having revealed themselves via a genuinely fresh sound in a world bombarded daily by new songs, new records and new artists, that, let’s be honest, pretty much sound the same. There are several examples of artists that are affected by this pressure and end up releasing a sophomore LP that is a weird blend of sticking with the winning formula of their debut whilst moving in a different direction towards experimenting with different sounds. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with either option (in fact, the “don’t fuck with the formula” approach is as sacred to risk-averse labels as “thou shalt not kill”) but combining both into a single solution with no real artistic vision tends to result in an album that’s either disappointing (at best), or simply does not make any sense (at worst) – and yes, I am talking to you, Miami Horror and Foster the People. My point being: it’s not easy to follow up a successful debut album.
Enter Jungle. 5 years ago, the band founded by London school friends Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland released a debut album packed with soul, hip-hop, funk, dub, tropical percussion, wildlife noises and falsettos (the list goes on and on), which combine into an overall ‘feel-good vibe’. Jungle’s debut was a massive success, both critically and commercially, with a trademark sound that was instantly recognizable. It is a debut record made for those of you whose soul is prone to hedonism (like yours truly) – it makes you want to put on a tracksuit or roller skates and bust out some crazy-ass moves that you never knew you had inside you. When performing live, “J” and “T” (as they would end up being known as) decided to expand to a seven-piece live band, translating their songs into a fully immersive and organic experience, and embarked on a 2-year long tour that placed the world at their feet. Their debut album sold more than half a million copies (a respectable figure in the streaming age), reaching Gold in the U.K. and shortlisted for the Mercury Prize in 2014. Safe to say, over the course of this period, when not touring the band was probably Busy Earnin’, as their most successful single suggests.
It was then time to begin working on the sophomore record. For that, J and T headed to L.A. to chase their own version of the American Dream. Interestingly enough – and unlike what I assume is the case with most artists that are attracted to L.A. sooner or later in their careers – they were not drawn to California by the sun, beach or everlasting flow of V.I.P. parties. J was drawn there by love, which is the central idea explored across For Ever. However (and as much as, deep down, we all enjoy a good Hollywood love story), in this particular case there was no happy ending. You wouldn’t say this based on Smile, which kicks off For Ever with the tropical beat one would associate with the band’s name and reminds us of the positive vibe of their debut album but, as the album unfurls, on even seemingly happy songs such as Heavy, California (“I will love you, can’t afford you”) or Happy Man (“Buy yourself a dream / And it won’t mean nothing”) there is a generally downbeat tone that contrasts with the initially-perceived happiness. If Jungle’s eponymous album sometimes sounded like kids wanting to have a good time (nothing wrong with that!), For Ever reveals a more introspective side to the group, exploring their humanity with powerfully concise writing.
The overall feeling of sadness present throughout the record ends up being a reflection on failed relationships (yes, T also ended a long-term relationship with a girl he met before the first-ever Jungle concert), and an aborted American dream, as For Ever ended up being finished back in Shepherd’s Bush with the help of Inflo, one of the producers behind Michael Kiwanuka’s critically-acclaimed sophomore record Love & Hate. It obviously helps that most listeners have, at some point or another in life, experienced the pain of losing love, so we can all relate to some extent with For Ever’s message. Yet Jungle, as always, are able to spin even the most heart-breaking songs into enchanting melodies – on House in L.A., for example, the combination of stunning falsettos, cinematic sounds and a thick 1970s funk vibe might make one forget about the track’s overall message of struggle and despair (“Truly you care if I’m getting on that plane / So ask me to stay”).
This does not mean that sadness always wins. In line with the winning formula of their debut album, funky tracks such Beat 54 or Casio still transport you to a sunny poolside, where one (or several) cocktails are waiting for you and everyone is inexplicably good at breakdancing. Even when they do leave their comfort zone to experiment with their sound, the results are impressive; the electronic beats of Give Over, or the piano-gospel combination of Cosurmyne are quite different from the Jungle of 5 years ago, but do seem like a natural evolution of their original sound. Nevertheless – and despite this positive change of tone – these tracks still feel like the brief moments of happiness everyone goes through following a break-up – those moments with friends or family that temporarily take your mind off the self-destructive experience of losing love. It is bold to say that Jungle saved the best for last, but similarly to their debut finale, Lemonade Lake, Pray is a powerful and beautifully-composed closer that was cleverly kept out of the album’s single releases, slapping you in the face and forcing you to sit down again – just as you were about to leave the jungle.
The groove and funk of the Jungle debut LP can still be found in For Ever, but there is more substance as the band exposes more of their humanity and selves. The record’s blend of bare emotions and exquisite production makes it a huge improvement when compared to some of the superficiality of their initial album. In For Ever, Jungle really explore the possibilities of a large band, showcasing a wider spectrum of talent that wasn’t so obvious the first time around. I also want to give a particular shout-out to the Rudi Salmon and Nat Zangi’s backup vox, which combine perfectly with J and T’s lead vocals, and are granted more attention on For Ever than ever before. The overall result is a more personal and mature record, signaling – perhaps more importantly – that Jungle were able to avoid “Second Album Syndrome”.