Nostalgia in music is a bit like a will-o’-the-wisp, if I can be forgiven the somewhat laboured analogy; it seems to promise a safe haven for fledging artists struggling to find a pathway amongst the vast and scary expanses known as ‘the future of music’, but if you put too much trust in it you can end up face-first in a quagmire, sounding like Oasis.
Right now, nostalgia seems to be playing a larger role in popular music than ever before. Although no-one would deny that being transported back to the glory days of youth has its allure, it’s hard not to feel that this emphasis on the supposed ‘golden age’ often reeks of cynicism. What we’re really witnessing is the ‘golden age’ of a nostalgia industry, masterminded by desperate record executives in order to shore up swiftly crumbling profit margins.
“Why download music by a new band for free,” they cry, “when you can buy the deluxe reissue of an album we’ve had the rights to for thirty years, now with an additional CD of demo sessions performed on the kazoo?” And the comeback tours of old rock and pop behemoths have their dark side as well. Although it can be great to see classic songs performed once again by their creators, they often have an air of self-importance that can be difficult to stomach. The mentality behind them seems to often reflect the ‘it was better in my day’ attitude of your woefully misguided dad.
These reunited dinosaurs – whose latest projects have usually been met with resounding indifference, if not outright derision – swagger onto stage as if they’ve returned to teach the next generation how it’s done. To which we respond, “Well, it’s pretty good, but they’re no Animal Collective.” What makes it dangerous though is that the craze for these revivals is increasingly displacing appreciation of new innovators. Turn on the TV and what will you find: nary a single show devoted to cutting-edge music on mainstream terrestrial channels. Instead, you’re inundated with retrospectives droning yet again about those seminal acts from previous decades. If we keep looking like this at what is behind us, sooner or later we’re going to find ourselves up against a wall.
All is not lost, however, and in fact many of the bright young things of the contemporary music scene are now beginning to use this obsession with a venerated past as a source of inspiration. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti is one such project, but there are others with similar ambitions; stitching together components of 70s and 80s new wave into strange combinations, they might almost be called Frankenstein’s monsters. These aren’t mouldy reanimated corpses, however, so much as they are wholly different beasts. Creating eclectic soundscapes out of hackneyed material, they invite listeners to view musical heritage in a more iconoclastic and exciting way. No longer as a museum piece, but an unfinished building.
Deerhunter’s latest LP, Halcyon Digest, has an even more sceptical and intelligent approach. The title itself suggests the selective condensation of the past that goes into nostalgia, and the entire album hovers brilliantly between cosy reminiscing and a disillusioned rejection of these once-cherished memories.
The music itself embodies its pioneering philosophy, gesturing towards precursors even as it closes the door on them and starts work on a new wing. “Where did my friends go?” lead singer Bradford Cox plaintively croons on the closing track, impersonating one of the pack of dullards who insist on dwelling self-pityingly in the past, before erasing his own question with the weary command of ‘Shut your mouth’. Yes, shut up old-timers: the children have got something to say.