A successful and lauded debut album can look like a musician’s golden ticket. If your first record sells thousands of copies and is hailed as a great work of art, then surely you have a brilliant career ahead, right? Of course, this is not necessarily the case. Not all musicians manage to make good after an auspicious debut, as some of the essays in this book remind us. Nick Drake showed huge early promise with Five Leaves Left but it was only five years until his premature death. Then there are those like Willis Alan Ramsey, who released an acclaimed debut album in 1972, and who has not yet come up with a follow-up. “What was wrong with the first one?” he often says, when asked if he has plans for a sophomore release.
George Plasketes contributes the essay on Ramsey to this collection, along with four others, but contents himself with editing the rest of the book. However, as he all but admits in the introduction, he could clearly have written the whole thing by himself if he had a mind to, though this would have resulted in quite a different kind of book. The kind of book that Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself in fact is, is the sort of accessible academic volume that might be of interest to music fans and scholars alike, covering both well-known artists and those who have more cult followings.
Many of the essays are reminiscent of the 33 1/3 series of books published by Bloomsbury (formerly by Continuum), each of which offers an in depth examination of a single album and its cultural context. The contributors have been given the freedom to build personal narratives around their essays, and some of these – such as George H. Lewis’ account of first hearing The Crickets’ debut album, and the story of Nicole Marchessau’s discovery of the enigmatic musician Jandek – provide valuable insight into either the era of the record in question’s release, or the artist’s wider oeuvre.
With 22 albums mused upon in a not particularly hefty collection, the essays are on average quite short, and as such they have their limitations. In many cases, there seems to be insufficient space for fully realised arguments explaining why the debuts under examination are so significant to be developed. As such, the collection feels in some ways like a kind of sourcebook for scholars of popular music: there might be many interesting details here that can be expanded upon in future work, but the book doesn’t always read like a complete work in itself.
No collection like this one can be entirely comprehensive, and there are some omissions in terms of genre, particularly as we venture further through the chronological sequence and towards the present day. No rap or hip-hop albums are profiled, and the closing essay on The Go! Team is the only one that covers electronic music at all. But country, blues, metal, punk, soul and folk all get a look in, so the scope is adequately broad, and there’s also an admirably even coverage of black and white artists. There’s a noticeably male bias, however, in terms of both the musicians and the contributors – though this is perhaps more an indictment of the male-heavy world of music scholarship than of Plasketes’ editorship.
Of course, one could argue that there are all sorts of omissions here – and maybe that’s why Plasketes has included several “Greatest Debut Albums” lists lifted from the music press as an appendix. These lists are interesting not only in that they demonstrate not only the impact of differing opinions on the shape of the popular music canon, but also in that they attest to an ongoing fascination with debut albums amongst listeners.
However, the cultural position of the debut album seems set to change, and this is evident from the collection’s final three essays: Andrew G. Davis’ examination of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ Dap-Dippin’, Micah Rueber’s analysis of The Libertines’ Up the Bracket and the essay on The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike penned by Plasketes and his son River.
All three make it apparent that postmodernism, the reappropriation and re-imagining of what has gone before, no longer fashionable in other disciplines, is still relevant in music. The Dap Kings are portrayed as being part of an R&B revival, The Libertines are shown to be uncommonly informed by music of the past (though Rueber’s reading of Beatles references into The Libertines’ lyrics is rather overwrought) and The Go! Team is described as a “group of audio archival rearrangers and abstract expressionists” and their debut album as a “collage”.
Arguably, we are suffering for a lack of significant debuts in 21st century popular music. Reviving and revitalising the sounds that have gone before is all very well, but it rarely brings with it the thrill of newness that comes with so many great debut albums. Maybe the most significant thing about this book is that it demonstrates how the special mythology that surrounds the debut album might well be on the wane.