Bands and artists have often experienced the visceral negativity that results from “selling out” and changing their sound, especially when they dare to go “pop”, trading in guitars for synths. But far from empty pop albums, these are frequently the most depressing albums the artists have ever released, outfitting sad songs in glowsticks.
Bruce Springsteen: “Tunnel of Love”
When Bruce Springsteen first added synths to his repertoire, the result was his greatest commercial and critical success, “Born in the U.S.A.” But that album operated much the same as the heartland rock he released in the 70s, just with an 80s gloss. But “U.S.A.”’s follow-up, “Tunnel of Love,” goes even further, stripping away the anthemic qualities and leaving just Springsteen, his guitar, and a synth.
Despite the 80s production, “Tunnel of Love” is most similar to Springsteen’s legendarily bleak acoustic album “Nebraska.” Springsteen mostly performs solo, sans the E Street Band, and the songs are all synth ballads about the dissolution of relationships. Springsteen divorced his wife the year after this album, and every song sounds like it’s written by somebody who’s long fallen out of love.
U2 had made two albums with dance music influences in the 90s before “Pop”, but its release proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for many fans. For the most part, the band brought the bad press on themselves with their ridiculous marketing for it, dressing up as the Village People and playing at a K-Mart. But despite its silly presentation, the album itself is no joke and is maybe the single darkest thing U2 has ever released.
It’s not only a pop album in its electronic production, but it’s also an album about pop music with the grim thesis that we use pop as a substitute for meaning, our loved ones, and God. Lead single “Discotheque” is the catchiest song ever written about gnawing spiritual emptiness, and from there Bono uses club beats to tackle his dead mother, the IRA, and his own self-destructive tendencies. By the last track, Bono is wailing over tape distortion for Jesus to help him, and the idea of this being a fun dance album is long gone.
“Up” doesn’t sound much like a R.E.M. album because R.E.M. weren’t in the mood to sound like R.E.M. when they recorded it. Drummer and founding member Bill Berry had left the band the year before, and with such a crucial part of the band missing, they decided to release an album with everything people love about R.E.M. missing, and not much replacing it.
The electronic sounds of “Up” are not particularly sophisticated. The most synth-heavy songs are built around buzzing, repetitive riffs that belong more to 70s Brian Eno than modern pop, and the chintzy drum machines constantly call to attention the missing band member. But over this spare backdrop, Michael Stipe puts some of his best lyrics, creating little short stories about people just as exhausted with life as he was at the time.
Sufjan Stevens: “The Age of Adz”
Sufjan Stevens broke out with “Michigan” and “Illinois,” two orchestral-folk tributes to the Midwest with songs that range from the tragic to the joyous. Stevens waited five years for his official “Illinois” follow-up and took the biggest left-turn imaginable, putting away the banjo in favor of a glitch-pop album. His delicate falsetto is even Auto-Tuned at one point, seeming to dare his fans into getting angry.
Stevens was gravely ill during the making of “Adz” and the album sounds like the inner workings of a feverish mind. Synths and beats will sit uneasily next to strings and horns, the lyrics are a jumble of biblical references and break-up anthems, and songs will abruptly shift course in the middle. It’s a disorienting, uncomfortable experience, but it builds to the pure joy of “Impossible Soul,” a 25-minute, five-part suite encouraging Stevens to enjoy life.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: “Skeleton Tree”
Nick Cave is beloved both as an earnest balladeer and as a gothic rocker, playing up his boisterous ringleader persona whether he’s singing tales of murder or sincere love songs. But that all changed with the release of “Skeleton Tree,” which was largely recorded in the wake of Cave’s son’s death after falling from a cliff.
Even compared to these other albums, “Skeleton Tree” is astonishingly bleak. Previous melancholy Cave albums like “The Boatman’s Call” at least have the warm sound of his piano to fall back on; this album is mostly sung over electronic distortion and stuttering beats, portraying Cave’s grief in the chilliest, least human-sounding way possible. Even his vocals, normally so energetic, are completely shot, with a few songs sounding like he’s crying on the mic.