Nostalgia Rock! (Thoughts on Hypnagogic pop, Ghost Box, Ariel Pink, Arcade Fire)

by Steve

Polaroid image of a portable radioMusic has always borrowed from the past. ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’ is not just the name of an old English indie band. It is a pretty succinct summation of what popular music was, is and will be. Yet, of late, there have been many interesting developments that go beyond mere pastiche or obvious imitation.The margins, as ever, have led the way. The hypnagogic pop/chillwave scene sounded incredible from its write-ups. I was led to believe that here I’d find the equivalent of My Bloody Valentine covering Don Henley’s Boys of Summer.1 Here would be a music steeped in childhood memories of mainstream pop, distorted and twisted through a modern leftfield sensibility.

Yet, the execution did not live up to the idea. Another music scene dressed in the Emperor’s new clothes.2 I’m happy to stand corrected, or be pointed in the direction of the good stuff, but most of what I heard sounded pedestrian at best, and unlistenable at worst.3 I’m sure some tracks were just some hipster recording himself hoovering. I quite liked Ducktails, and thought they came closest to evoking some distant Eighties memory, yet they were hardly a mind-blowing revelation.

A more satisfying alternative came from the Ghost Box record label, where the music and artwork work hand-in-hand to create an uncanny, unsettling version of the 1970s/1980s vision of the future. This was far more accomplished and better realised. There are many sonic and visual echoes to the past, yet echoes that are difficult to pin down. An imagined past of an imagined future, perhaps.4 And Ghost Box fall just the right side of kitsch, in that there are new ideas supplementing the influences at hand. It sounds eerily familiar, yet unlike anything I’ve heard.

And now, whether intentionally or not, the mainstream5 has co-opted some of these ideas, or at least offered a different take on this ‘nostalgia rock’.6

Ariel Pink has long been a stalwart of the underground and is a pretty key influence in hypnagogic pop circles. He has recorded countless cassettes of woozy, distorted pop, and this year has seen his first ‘mainstream’ release, Before Today.

Before Today completely nails the hypnagogic/nostalgia rock/whatever shtick. Or, to put it another way, he offers a whistle-stop rundown of the last forty years of pop, while sounding like nobody except himself – that familiar/new routine again. He veers wildly from garage rock to yacht rock and back again. There is a lot to explore. And throughout there are those sonic tics that trigger the vaguest memories, so that some hard-to-place nostalgia kicks in. It is both comforting and unsettling.

This brings me to indie/alternative monolith Arcade Fire, and their recent album, The Suburbs. Popular music has generally been about escape, about getting on that midnight train.7 Here is a record all about returning. And with it comes a sound that is wistful, nostalgic and full of that familiar/new feeling.8 Here is a record all about the experience of the recognisable made new and disconcerting.

When we return home things can never be the same, many emotions are thrown up, and we often need to reconcile our past and our future. If Funeral was full of childhood innocence or perhaps the loss of it, Neon Bible was the adolescence, railing against the world. The Suburbs is about adult acceptance. We may have to give up our old dreams, as life and responsibilities offer us far more concrete ones. Family overtakes ambition. Economics mean should we want to have children, or buy a house, then we must move back to where we began, or somewhere similar. We must move past that feeling (to mis-quote the title track) of youth, but yet not see it as defeat.

Arcade Fire soundtrack this with a variety of sounds that hint at our9 youth. They don’t necessarily directly ape the bands and songs of our earlier years, but they certainly allude to them, which makes perfect sense considering the subject matter of the album. Near the conclusion of the album, Sprawl II even sounds like some forgotten alternative/electro track from the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie. Or something.

So, there is a lot of interesting work going on in re-appropriating and articulating the nostalgia of the past, and perhaps more than that, expressing the point we reach where we start to look back on our youth and look ahead to our adulthood. We are perhaps the first generation to have this happen so late10 and so we have the artists already established within mainstream popular music to do this. Pop/rock is no longer the preserve of youth. It is well into middle-age itself. And it continues to make sense, and re-evaluate, its past. As we all do, I suppose.

Comments and thoughts are very welcome. And do excuse me if I have just vanished up my own backside…

Notes (apologies for lack of anchoring, I’m a terrible, lazy man)

  1. I mean, what’s not to like about that?
  2. The Emperor, if there was one, was perhaps the writer David Keenan, who evangelised about the scene in the Wire Magazine. That so much of this stuff was peddled by Keenan’s Volcanic Tongue shop is purely a coincidence, I’m sure.
  3. And I have a pretty strong threshold music-wise. However, I don’t think my life will lack any cultural richness if I never hear another Vodka Soap ‘jam’ again.
  4. Excuse me for the pseudo-whatever of this statement, please!
  5. Well, the ‘indie’ mainstream, the kind of stuff you can get in chain stores or read about in your local shop. I guess. Hmm. Maybe this isn’t the time to get hung up on definitions. So…er…anything that isn’t likely to be issued on cassette with a hand-drawn sleeve, with a limited run of five copies.
  6. I’m not trying to create a ‘scene’ or umbrella term here. That would be silly. It is just a convenient term. Plus, it is a really laboured play on ‘Combat Rock’.
  7. Why is it always the midnight train? And why is it every experience I’ve had of a midnight train has been far from romantic and loaded with meaning? I guess I get the wrong trains.
  8. I would say the Arcade Fire belong to a line of bands that have a sound that is at once instantly familiar, yet incredibly hard to place, and just new, without being avant-garde or overtly experimental, and residing squarely in the indie/alternative firmament. I’d add Pavement, Tindersticks, maybe Spoon to that list. I’m sure there are many more candidates.
  9. I guess I should now state ‘our’ as being the late 20s-into-mid 30s bracket. The one that Arcade Fire reside in themselves.
  10. People are leaving home, marrying, having kids, buying houses, much later in life than ever before, right?

Image by rememberthrough via Flickr