Updated: Jun 17, 2020
In an interview with Playboy in 1980, John Lennon talked about writing the song “Nowhere Man”; “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down,” he said. “Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”
Those of us with taste recognize John Lennon as the greatest songwriter in the history of rock music. But for those five hours, even in 1965, at the height of the success of the Beatles — he couldn’t write a worthwhile song. For that matter, after Imagine in 1971, Lennon seems to have lost his gift: He spent the last nine years of his life writing mediocre, unimpressive pop. In the sixties, Lennon had harnessed an array of songwriting techniques which allowed him to transcend the average compositional craft of his competitors. Beguilingly, in the seventies, he seems to have almost opted to endorse the same trademarks of songwriting mediocrity which, in the sixties, he stunned everyone by again and again transcending. Do artists ever elect to unlearn genius? Regardless, Lennon's rare bout of writer's block in 1965 should leave us both encouraged and curious. What Lennon was lacking on that morning was the fateful and fickle muse. This was John Lennon, after all. On that morning, Lennon had all of the tools and experience he needed to write pure pop perfection, as he had already proved by writing to date dozens of songs that hysterical girls would still enjoy humming generations later as grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Yet, within the confine of those five hours, Lennon might as well have been Ringo, even Pete Best.
Frustratingly for fans, and surely even more so for artists, the muse is capricious, or said less euphemistically: the band just kind of sucks. And this phenomenon appears most virulent within the art of pop music. All too often, bands create one masterpiece of an album and then go on to release a stream of sub-par ones, hardly memorable. I’ve probably listened to The Strokes album Is This It? over fifty times; yet I’ve only listened to the band’s next two albums once or twice. How did Weezer go from the brilliance of The Blue Album and Pinkerton to thinking it was acceptable to title an album Raditude, let alone record it? Or, as a more subtle example of “falling off,” as it were, consider My Bloody Valentine's nosedive from Loveless to m b v. Honestly, the examples are so numerous that to even name a few may be more of a disservice than an illustration, and so I will refrain from further listing. But I assure: you need not look hard to find other cases.
Thus the miracle of the one-hit-wonder calls for explanation. How is that a musician can write a dozen, or a half dozen, or even just one song that seems to soar with energy and so delight the ears thereby? In fact, melody is quite often the most important element of a pop song. It’s what you sing along to; it’s what seduces you and tempts you back for another listen. Indeed, without well-crafted melodies, pop songs tend to fall apart. Unfortunately for songwriters, this most important element is also the most elusive. Writing melodies cannot be taught; melodies must be summoned, and quite often they don’t come—the muse is gone asleep. The best songwriters know what things lead to a good melody: certain chord changes (although too much theory can, of course, be detrimental), experimentation, and practice in general; but none of these strategies will ever guarantee that one will come.
To be sure, all art involves this inconsistency. There is no “formula” for great literature, painting, poetry, or film, yet melody is somehow different. Your brain undergoes an instinctual “yes/no” reaction when it hears a melody, while pieces from these other art forms have a tendency to trick you with their “maybes”—especially when they have the backing of an “maybes.” Melodies are the most naked art.
Let us recognize, then, the specialness—superiority, even—of those few bands capable of putting out one unforgettable album after the next—or, at least, creating more than just one. Yet, sadly, it seems as though every band has its Be Here Now, which means you should not be surprised if the next release of your favorite band disappoints; after all, even John Lennon eventually succumbed to mediocrity (although at least we got to see him naked in the process).