Ignore The Lead Singer: Why Non-Frontmen Have Become King
2018 taught me a lot of things. Like Ariana Grande unintentionally kicking off the fresh meme of “one taught me love, one taught me patience, one taught me pain” with “thank u, next,” I realized that time and time again, lead singers’ solo projects usually cause me pain while their bandmates always teach me love and patience.
For awhile now, I’ve been pretty baffled by recent releases from Julian Casablancas’ the Voidz and Morrissey – who, in certain circles at one point, were considered geniuses, revolutionary, and soothsayers. In nearly every positive review of Fleet Foxes records, critics hail Robin Pecknold as the sole source of creativity from the group. Yet, I can’t help but notice that artists adjacent to those previously mentioned had a pretty impressive 2018.
While Julian Casablancas has been busy putting out less-than-stellar records with the Voidz and cancelling a major tour, Albert Hammond Jr. released four phenomenal studio albums and an EP better than most bands’ LPs. In March of 2018, we heard Francis Trouble – a short but memorable record wry with spunky vocals and guitar hooks so infectious that you want to sing them aloud. Ever since his near-perfect 2006 release Yours To Keep, Albert Hammond Jr.’s solo material has done nothing but prove how valuable his guitar riffs and licks have been to the Strokes’ back catalog. His ability to craft insanely wonderful melodies in songs like “St. Justice,” “Born Slippy,” and “In Transit” put him miles ahead of forgettable and unimaginative Voidz tracks like “Pink Ocean” and “Pyramid of Bones.” Those songs, likewise, make me reconsider the majority of Strokes’ hits – why the hell wasn’t Hammond Jr. given the reins and mic more often?
While it’s fair to understand that most people can’t stop talking about Morrissey because Morrissey himself can’t stop talking, I constantly question why no one’s talking about Johnny Marr instead. Years after writing some of the greatest guitar riffs in history with The Smiths (see, “How Soon Is Now?”), Marr – unlike the former frontman of the Smiths – is actually still putting out great music. Morrissey’s 2014 effort World Peace Is None Of Your Business and the truly abysmal Low In High School from 2017 do nothing but prove that Marr instead is the legend we ought to be worshipping.
“Dynamo,” a standout track from Marr’s 2014 album Playland, instantly kicks off with an unforgettable guitar riff and features synth that doesn’t sound like an afterthought. The production on the track alone feels more rich and textured than Morrissey’s best song of the last few years “I Wish You Lonely,” which honestly feels like a Smiths b-side that would’ve been rejected by the group back in the 80’s. Marr’s “Hi Hello” is a song that also recalls the Smiths, but only taps into the band’s highlights and manages to avoid self-indulgence. While Moz is incapable of getting beyond his own angsty insufferability on “Spent the Day in Bed,” Marr’s “Easy Money” just might be the catchiest song ever written without a pop star committee of songwriters behind it. As further proof, both Playland and Call The Comet charted just as high in the UK as Moz’s last two records without Marr having to make wild headlines like claiming Brexit is “magnificent” – and I feel like that speaks volumes.
The greatest case for giving more attention to seemingly “background musicians” is Fleet Foxes. While frontman Robin Pecknold has offered the world a lot of good with his music – namely, Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut and 2011’s Helplessness Blues – it is staggering to consider how much his former drummer Josh Tillman – more popularly known as Father John Misty – has outshone him. Since 2015, Father John Misty has released three incredible records in four years – two of which were nominated for Grammys and one of which actually won. I Love You, Honeybear peaked at #17 on the Billboard 200, peaked at #3 on the Alternative Billboard charts, and sold 28,000 copies in its first week – which is pretty monumental considering it was released by an indie label and Tillman’s previous solo work Fear Fun did a fraction of that.
Since then, Misty made waves with 2017’s Pure Comedy, which was written nearly a year before Donald Trump’s election yet appeared to both comment on and predict it. Ranging from the dry, sardonic wit of the record’s title track and the romantically iconic “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins),” to the earnest search for salvation in 2018’s “God’s Favorite Customer,” Father John Misty goes beyond prototypical introspective folk rock music. His self-awareness, thematic range, prolificacy, and at one point hilarious social media presence, has made him more creatively relevant and interesting than most of what Robin Pecknold has produced in the last five years. Despite how excellent their debut was, no one in 2008 could’ve predicted that such beautiful and meaningful music could come from the drummer of Fleet Foxes; most were preoccupied with their frontman, if anything.
Father John Misty’s effect on the music world felt no more obvious than when Pitchfork opened their positive review of Crack-Up by mentioning Josh Tillman first and foremost when he hadn’t even contributed to the record. Pitchfork wrote,
In the six years since Fleet Foxes’ last album, their former drummer has eclipsed them in the public eye by embracing a flamboyant persona fluent in sex, drugs, self-awareness, and sarcasm, like a not-so-subtle referendum on his previous gig.
I expect this trend of non-lead singers starting to outshine the frontmen of their group to continue. It’s something we’ve been seeing for awhile, but haven’t been able to precisely discuss. Hell, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has already been nominated for an Oscar for his work on the Phantom Thread soundtrack while Thom Yorke has yet to receive that honor. Carl Barat of the Libertines managed to surpass his tabloid-star bandmate Pete Doherty when his band Dirty Pretty Things charted higher in 2006 than any Babyshambles record ever managed to – yes, really.
It is 2019 and Dave Keuning, guitarist of The Killers, has just debuted music that sounds better than the majority of The Killers last record. Keuning’s “Restless Legs” boasts the type of dance-y synth once so synonymous with The Killers’ early work – not to mention a hyper catchy verse-chorus structure void of any cynicism. Aside from 2017’s “The Man,” – which is dripping with its own satire and irony – I struggle to think of a recent Killers song that resembles such a fun, dancefloor hit.
A change is imminent amidst non-frontmen, and I eagerly embrace it. For now, I’m going to do what I do best: wait for everybody to realize that other band members are artists too and ignore the lead singer.