It was my erstwhile former colleague at Time Off, Mr Steve 'Stringer' Bell, who introduced me to the concept of The Law Of Diminishing Returns (not to mention the phrase “I don't hate it” as a positive review of any music even remotely tainted with the electronic dance music brush, but I digress...).
The aforementioned Law is actually a complex economics formula involving many algebraic equations which, when distilled to its essence in relation to a performing artist's career arc, essentially means “each new release is substantially shitter than the last”. (Though interestingly enough, sales figures often run inversely proportional to the quality of the output. See: Black Eyed Peas, Swedish House Mafia, Star Wars merch.)
This phenomenon reared its head again recently when David Bowie dropped his first piece of new music in a decade. My mate Dan Condon successfully trolled legions of Bowie fans with his deliberately inflammatory remarks wrote about it in great detail in these very pages when Where Are We Now? surfaced last week, so I won't bore you with my extended analysis here except to ask the obvious – is anyone really surprised that the track isn't on par with Changes, Let's Dance, or the mesmerising performance of his genitals in Labyrinth?
In fact, of all the '60s rockers still plying their trade in the recording studio, it's arguably only Neil Young and Leonard Cohen who've produced anything worthwhile in recent times, and even they only trod water rather than set a new high watermark on 2012's Psychedelic Pill and Old Ideas respectively. (And as an aside, if you want some lols about old rockers raping the childhoods of their fans, check this rant over at The AV Club from Mastodon's Brent Hinds about Santana teaming up with Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas for the actually-not-that-awful Smooth in '99. Hilarity ensues.)
The inconvenient truth about The Law Of Diminishing Returns is that no one is immune to it. Even your band – the one who've never let you down when you needed them most, who've inspired you, who've opened your ears to a whole new world of sound – can be struck down by the curse.
My faves Orbital and Godspeed You! Black Emperor both felt the effects nearly a decade ago, called time on their careers, then returned from nowhere in 2012 with comeback albums that can look their illustrious forebears squarely in the eye. Most Queens Of The Stone Age fans I know still can't speak of Era Vulgaris without sobbing and asking to be held, and then there's Underworld – specifically Barking, their 2010 collaborative long-player which was preceded by the false dawn of the instant drum'n'bass anthem known as Scribble.
Like Era Vulgaris, I haven't listened to Barking in a while – it's not terrible, but nor is it something I'd use as supporting evidence during one of my now-quite-infrequent “this band will change your mind about dance music” diatribes.
To me though, it sounded like a band who were afraid to be themselves; leaders reduced to the role of followers, calling in the new breed (High Contrast, Dubfire, et al) to give their music a fresh lick of paint when they'd previously led others to dance to the beat as dictated by them.
So I greeted the appearance of new Underworld-related material in my Facebook feed – specifically a solo piece from previously maniacal, now kinda chilled front man Karl Hyde – with some trepidation. Would Cut Clouds have us gurning our little jaws off, or face palming all up in that shit?
Judge for yourself.
We're sure not in anthem territory any more, Toto, and that ain't necessarily a bad thing.
When it comes to vocal calisthenics, Karl is certainly no threat to that finalist from The Voice whose name you instantly forgot, but Cut Clouds tickles the special place in my heart reserved for the ambient meanderings of post-rock predecessors Talk Talk in a big way. In fact, between Karl's new direction and his long-time production cohort Rick Smith turning in the gargantuan And I Will Kiss for the Industrial Revolution sequence of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony last year, I wouldn't be disappointed to never again hear a new Underworld album for the first time.
And if Karl and the gang do fire up the battle station for one more bombing raid? I'll be all over that shit like Nicki Minaj on a cheque-cashing Guest 16 regardless.
Still, I fear what The Law Of Diminishing Returns might bring. But if worse does come to worst, Karl could always take the lead of Labyrinth-era Bowie, display his gift in a tight-fitting leotard, and remain safe in the knowledge that no one will even notice whatever it is that he's warbling.
Album Of The Week goes to Jamie xx's In Colour, Ben Lee has a new release and SOAK releases her debut in This Week's Releases.