Sky Blue Sky Syndrome def. A serious medical condition that occurs within a band that is characterized by a disappointing album released after a series or solid releases, and a sudden, surprising embrace of lite rock. This condition is easily identifiable by the listener, but it is nearly impossible for the band to self diagnose this condition until it’s too late. See Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. Also see Challengers by The New Pornographers. Stuck in second gear. Radio stations that promise the greatest hits of the Eighties, Nineties, and today.
Symptoms: Sagging tempos, quieter volumes, unnecessarily ornate arrangements, lower levels of guitar and drums, and a noticeable lack of spontaneity.
Often times band members will openly talk about their symptoms. Statements like this one made by Carl Newman while recording Challengers would seem to indicate that the band were already suffering the ill effects of Sky Blue Sky Syndrome. Notice the statements about making a quieter record, toning down the drums, and adding more strings, horns, and flutes.
It definitely sounds like something that, when it’s quiet, I think it’s much quieter than it ever has been, to the point that there are actually songs that don’t really have any drums. Or, a song that has no drums for the first half, but then the drums come in, and even then they don’t come in that much. There’s a little more instrumentation than we’ve really tried having before. We brought in a string quartet, and there’s actually flute on it, there’s going to be a little bit of trumpet. I feel like I kind of shied away from that in the past, but I thought, why not try it now? There was a long stretch there where I thought there were too many bands with strings and horns and flutes. Then I thought, I like those instruments, so I brought them in. Not that there’s going to be that much of it on the record, per se, but you know, just wanted to add a few more colors to the palette.
It is quite common for a band who is suffering from Sky Blue Sky Syndrome to be completely unaware of the fact that they are sick. In the case of Wilco, it was post release press that made their case of Sky Blue Sky Syndrome painfully obvious. In an interview with AOL’s Spinner, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco was more than a bit peeved when a critic from Entertainment Weekly suggested that Sky Blue Sky was the best Eagles record not recorded by The Eagles. The quote in question, which compared Wiclo to the kings of lite rock, was meant to be a complement. Yet, Tweedy was in such denial that his band had just released a lite rock album that he could not comprehend how anyone could compare his band to The Eagles.
If you’re unsure whether a band is indeed suffering from Sky Blue Sky Syndrome, there are some steps that you can take to aid in the diagnosis. One thing you can do is to pick up mom and dad and take them out to dinner, and while you’re driving to the restaurant put the cd on the stereo and pay close attention to their reaction. On the way home, put in one of the band’s earlier albums. At the end of the night, ask your parents which album they liked better. If they answer that they preferred the one you played when you were driving to the restaurant, then you may have a case of Sky Blue Sky Syndrome. You can also try this experiment with your co-workers, or any one else with notably poor taste in music. Other options include playing the cd during a party and monitoring the energy level of your guests, and endless varieties of field experiments where you mix numbers from the cd in question in with lite rock standards.
What You Can Do: Criticism is an important tool in combating Sky Blue Sky Syndrome. If you’re a professional critic, or if you have a blog, write statements like “Challengers would benefit from the inclusion of some simpler melodies and quicker tempos,” “There’s nothing wrong with a three minute pop song with a big melody and vocal harmonies, accompanied by the standard guitar, bass, and drums,” and “Still, even with those glimpses of pure pop satisfaction, I can’t help but compare Challengers to their earlier work. There is definitely something missing in this collection of songs. It’s in need of some extra thump from the drums and more guitars ringing out from those old blown speakers.”
Under no circumstances should you hide your disappointment. DO NOT write, “Hey, the new album by New Pornographers is out today. Here’s my favorite song,” while completely ignoring the shortcomings of the album. DO NOT leave a comment on Myspace reading, “Thanks for the add. I luv yer tunes.” These types of comments will only worsen their condition.
You may still go to one of their live shows, but make sure you save your biggest reaction for the back catalog. If you must clap for the new material, be careful that the volume of your clap does not exceed the level of a courtesy clap. Again, it is important not to encourage lite rock.
There is hope. While some bands never recover from Sky Blue Sky Syndrome, for the majority of affected artists, it is nothing more than a one album cycle illness. By the end of the European tour, they will come to the realization on their own that the new material isn’t merely as exciting to play on stage as the back catalog. In fact, most doctors won’t even recommend treatment for Sky Blue Sky Syndrome until it extends into the second album cycle as all of the drugs currently available for Sky Blue Sky Syndrome require high doses that carry serious side effects like extreme fatigue and sleepiness, splitting headaches, and increased sensitivity to light and loud noises.
Challengers by The New Pornographers: 6 out of 10 on The Rockometer.