I remember my first break-up. Well, not exactly: I remember the anger, the isolation, and the despair, but I don’t remember the location where it occurred, or the time of day, or the time of year, or the course of the conversation. I suppose I remember almost none of the specifics. In fact, there is only one specific that I recall with precision: jumping into my car after it was all over, putting on Dinosaur, Jr’s “Freak Scene,” submerging myself in three minutes and thirty-six seconds of feedback-drenched catharsis, and, when it was all over, feeling that the song had saved my life.
This is why, some twenty years ago, I fell in love with pop music. I spend a lot of time writing about the influence of post-modernism on hip-hop and the role of ambition in the history of punk rock, but if the reason I spend so much time thinking about the disposable cultural trinkets that are pop songs is that I believe in the their power to uplift, to inspire, to imbue with hope.
Unfortunately, this is a power with which the pop community has a tortured, complex relationship. Ever since Brian Wilson stated that SMiLE would constitute a “teenage symphony to God,” songwriters have taken turns attempting to obfuscate the music’s more romantic sensibilities out of fear that such sensibilities were tasteless and would compromise the movement’s artistic credibility. Efforts to turn pop into a cerebral endeavor have led to some of the most beautiful and challenging music of the last 50 years (see Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Radiohead), but they have also left the music afraid of itself, feeling the need to wash itself in distance and irony to avoid the unsightly residue of sincerity. At no time has this fear been more evident than the present day, when the clever, hyper-referential collages of Ariel Pink and the haughty detachment of “chillwave” artists like Neon Indian receive widespread critical acclaim, despite the fact that no one really likes listening to them.
In pop music, however, sincerity and intensity always win out. They won out with the Ramones and Sex Pistols in the mid-70s; they won out with Nirvana in the early 90s; and there is reason to believe that they are on the road to winning once again. My first evidence of this potential shift came on a rainy day in early September, when I walked to my car to discover that it had been broken into during the night. Nothing was stolen, but papers and possessions were strewn all over the vehicle’s interior, leaving me feeling violated, isolated, and generally like shit. Then, I put on Girls’ new record Father, Son, Holy Ghost. And everything changed.
Most of the press on Father, Son, Holy Ghost has centered on the album’s stylistic diversity, its frequent employment of pop clichés, the epic length of many of its tracks, and principle songwriter Christopher Owens’ tortured back story. But, to my eyes, none of these details tell you, the reader, what you need to know about this record. What you need to know is that my car was broken into, I felt despondent, and this record made me feel like everything was going to be alright. It is nothing short of a pitched and orchestrated paragon of empathy, a song cycle that leaves you feeling understood even if your own understanding of the lyrics is minimal. From the heart-wrenching guitar solo of “My Ma,” to the gospel-driven conclusion of “Vomit,” to the single tear rolling down your cheek at the end of “Jamie Marie,” Father, Son, Holy Ghost will have you coming back again and again not because of its wit or ingenuity, but because you need it.
Of course, one record does not a trend make, and one might think that the indie establishment would spend the rest of the fall sauntering coolly away from such open displays of sentiment. But such fears were blown to smithereens with the release of M83′s towering edifice of emotional nudity Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Band auteur Anthony Gonzalez announced months ago that his new double-LP was inspired by Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a bold if unfashionable statement that let the world know the album would make no effort to hide the heart on its sleeve.
Indeed, there is a lot about Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming that is unfashionable: non-ironic saxophone solos, rambling monologues by children, song titles in French. But unlike much of the winking Hall-and-Oates worship that has recently infected the indie world, every garish move on this album is performed with confidence, belief, and at times downright defiance. Gonzalez wants you to know how he’s feeling, what he’s feeling, and, most importantly, that he’s feeling. And let you know he does. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming spends its entire 74-minute runtime inflaming your passions like an amphetamine milk shake, with songs like “Midnight City” and “Reunion” flooring your emotional accelerator, only to have ballads like “Wait” drown you in heartache. You’ll want to dance in private. You’ll want to sing along loudly and out of key. You’ll want to buy a car just so you can listen to it while driving.
And so, with these two grand love letters to the salvational power of pop, grandeur and earnestness have made their return to indie music. Of course, in a year with its share of nihilism on wax, one would be forgiven for doubting the staying power of music so rooted in hope. But there is reason for optimism. In late September a 21-year-old man from Boise, Idaho by the name of Trevor Powers released his debut LP as Youth Lagoon, entitled The Year of Hibernation.
An obviously low-budget endeavor consisting of a scant eight songs, the record manages to overcome its limitations through sheer force of will. When I interviewed Powers back in May, he noted that he named his project Youth Lagoon because the image evoked “feelings of nostalgia,” and he noted that his goal in recording an album was to document “what I’m feeling and going through.” The fact that such a young, rising artist can embrace sentiment so boldly while garnering wide-ranging critical acclaim in the process speaks to the potential re-emergence of such sentiment at the center of pop music. For my part, I have listened to no record this year more than The Year of Hibernation, not because it is innovative or challenging or modish, but simply because it is inspiring.
In a 1964 interview with Alvin Toffler for Playboy, Vladimir Nabokov said, “I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase ‘sincere and simple’…When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper.” Indeed the battle between guileless sincerity and wry complexity is timeworn, ongoing, and visible in all of the arts. Pop music is unique amongst the arts, however, in that it is a form which has, from its inception, been designed for the young. As its audience has aged, pop music has evolved along with it, allowing for greater subtlety and nuance, more murkiness, more shades of grey. But whereas sincerity and simplicity may be coarse or vulgar in literature or film, in pop music they provide us with something invaluable: a link to our past, a lens through which to view our prior selves, and a hope that, in some way, we might remain young forever.
L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He is the author of numerous record reviews and thought pieces on popular music. His development remains conspicuously arrested.