Slide Show: Albums That Went Darker

For most rock acts, the traditional way to deal with success is to rework their lyrics, image and sound to become palatable to a larger audience. Usually this means brightening the subject matter, cleaning up the bad words, softening the sharp edges on those power chords and getting haircuts that cost more than the previous album.

This is a process commonly known as "selling out"; however, it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the artist in question becomes angrier, more depressed and/or more confrontational. Here are some of those albums.

John Lennon,
Plastic Ono Band (1970): Lennon's first post-Beatles release, Plastic chronicles his struggles with his psychological demons. His treatment in primal-scream therapy bled over into the subject matter of this cathartic, often harrowing album - he addresses anti-intellectualism, isolation, the Beatles' break-up and the death of his mother, who died when he was 17. Hope emerges throughout the album as well, but Lennon seemed to be fighting a pitched and exhausting battle for every tiny scrap of it.

Neil Young,
Tonight's the Night (1975): Recorded in 1973, this album was actually held up from release by Young''s record label for being too much of a departure from the more radio-friendly Harvest. A deeply personal (and drug-influenced) reaction to the months-apart deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Young's friend/roadie Bruce Berry, the album's sound is roughly mixed and sparsely engineered, tmatching the lyrics' desolation and grief, a virtual 180 from Young's previously poppier sound.

When 1974's milder On the Beach was released, critics and fans alike were shocked at the dark, jagged edges of that album when compared to Harvest; imagine what their reactions might have been had Tonight's the Night been released first as intended.

The Cure,
Seventeen Seconds (1980): Most Cure fans wouldn't recognize the band who released the debut album Three Imaginary Boys; that was a significantly more mainstream post-punk act. After having his fill of record-label studio interference and manipulation while recording that album, singer Robert Smith demanded full creative control over every subsequent album and developed the gloomy, brooding sound which became the Cure's signature starting with Seventeen Seconds.

It's almost funny to think that critics were reacting to a sad, sulky Cure with surprise, but back then, the change really was quite a head-turner.

Bruce Springsteen,
Nebraska (1982): To follow up epic double LP The River, Springsteen retreated to his home studio and recorded a bunch of stark, eerie folk-inspired demos, then brought them into the studio where they were given the proper E-Street Band treatment, filling out the songs in a more traditional rock arrangement.

Imagine everyone's surprise, then, when the new Springsteen album came out, and it was still those original, stripped-down demos. Springsteen decided the full-band arrangements just couldn't capture the songs' haunted atmosphere, and decided to go with the bare-bones version of what would become one of the most critically praised albums of his career.

The Land of Rape and Honey (1988): Ministry's (more or less) sole craftsman Al Jourgensen found something following the release of 1986's Twitch: his guitar. Previous Ministry albums weren't exactly sunshine and roses, but were instead more in the vein of glam-industrial-dance bands like Nitzer Ebb, featuring exclusively synthesized arrangements.

On Land, though, those days came to a crashing close when Jourgensen introduced his frenzied, anarchic guitar playing to the mix, pouring hot, pumping, organic blood into Ministry's rusted iron heart. It marked the graduation from just another bleak synth act to a truly disturbing virtuoso tumult that sounds a little like every TV in the world blaring in your ear at the same time, and a lot like the end of the world.

Cowboys From Hell (1990): It's tough to remember the days before groove-metal, nevermind the days before Pantera pioneered that very genre. Nonetheless, they were a more melodic, crescendo-happy glam-metal act up until this album, when the band began writing more rhythmic, choppy instrumentals and singer Phil Anselmo all but abandoned his shrieking wail in favor of his now-familiar choked roar.

Sure, "Cemetery Gates" has a kiss of their glam-metal past, but it's a kiss goodbye. From this album onward, Pantera came to define everything that was brutal and thrash-worthy in heavy metal.

In Utero (1993): Kurt Cobain was a conflicted man following 1991's earth-shattering monster success Nevermind. His youthful rock-star fantasies were perverted by the media's portrayal of him as some kind of messiah figure, his songwriting became jaded, confrontational, angry and, of course, monumentally sad.

Angular, dissonant songs like "Milk It," "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," and "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle" were little more than sonic assaults designed to drive away fair-weather fans who simply wanted another "Lithium." Even the radio hits "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" featured disturbing or intentionally paradigm-exploding lyrics. Unfortunately for Kurt, Utero's layers of opaque meaning and challenging material only seemed to make everybody love him more.

Johnny Cash,
American Recordings (1994): Johnny Cash was deeply wary of studio producers by 1993, when he was first approached by Rick Rubin. Rubin, though, agreed wholeheartedly with Cash's opinion that throughout his lengthy career, he had been mishandled by various studio wonks who tried to cram the black-clad outsider into a sanitized, family-friendly package.

Rubin stripped the production on the album down to its skeleton, pushing Cash's spine-tingling croon to the forefront, transforming him from the kind of amiable country crooner who would have a silly variety show to some kind of prophet blown into town on an ill wind, preaching and praying for the redemption of a world that might not deserve it. It was a natural fit for Cash, who seldom deviated from this style for the rest of his critically-worshipped career.

Sing the Sorrow (2003): For years, AFI were a samey-sounding horror-punk act that at best sounded like a decent Misfits facsimile, and at worst sounded like absolutely everything else on their label (Nitro). However, that all changed on Dreamworks debut Sing the Sorrow.

The band became significantly more adventurous musically, experimenting with tempo changes, electronic elements and more poetic themes than their previous works. Davey Havok's voice transformed from a generic punk shout to an engaging, melodic style that actually sounded like real singing, and what's more, he occasionally screamed for all he was worth. The phenomenon known as "emo" wasn't quite the cartoon it is today, and the significant shift in AFI's sound was largely accepted as vital, surprising and better than anyone had expected of them.

Green Day,
American Idiot (2004): To follow up their critically applauded but commercially ignored Warning, Green Day wanted to do something different. When all the demos for their intended album Cigarettes and Valentines disappeared, they pretty much just said "fuck it" and decided to write a rock opera.

Engaging in new songwriting methods, they wound up conceiving songs far more adventurous and layered than any of their previous work, punctuated by blasts of more familiar punk-rock noise that kept the older fans happy. The deeply cynical, disaffected album that resulted rocketed the band back into relevance and raised the stakes for their peers. Suddenly it wasn't enough to just write songs about watching TV and masturbating anymore.

thelastplaceyoulook, The Lies We Tell Ourselves (2006): In 2005, Houston's thelastplaceyoulook were just starting to come into their own, developing a growing, loyal following based on the catchy, sing-and-scream-along-ready post-hardcore tracks on previous releases. It was a surprise, then, when in January of the next year their EP The Lies We Tell Ourselves turned in five dissonant, brutal songs that sounded like they had been broken into pieces and glued back together in more incongruous arrangements.

Filled with screams of rage and angry, confrontational lyrics, the bombast stormed and slammed against itself in a maelstrom of accusations and a rhythm section that sounded a little bit like trench warfare. Later reversing their trajectory into more cohesive, hopeful material, thelastplaceyoulook were wise to not attempt to keep out-chaosing themselves; although Lies was truly engaging in its violence,. A record that sounded any more disharmonious than this would probably have been a real mess.

Grey Britain (2009): Gallows were never a feel-good band; the angry English punks that burst on the scene in 2006 with Orchestra of Wolves were always hardcore as all hell. Nonetheless, on this year's devastating Grey Britain, they've leveraged their talents to make their home country seem like some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopian hell straight out of The Dark Tower.

Occasional orchestral flourishes swell up with palpable menace, providing both intro to and relief from the continuous roaring assault that appears as soon as the band strikes up, seldom stopping for air. When they do, it's only to punctuate the nightmare.

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John Seaborn Gray