The above link is to a very interesting essay dealing with Simon Reynold’s Retromania. I haven’t read the book, so I’m only going on the ideas as presented here and what I’ve read elsewhere, but I’m coming to the realisation that I agree with the thesis less than I thought I did. I mean, the idea that we’re all saturated in backwards-looking indie pop with little of real novelty going on has a certain cynical appeal, especially when you’re seeing music through the prism of modern criticism (more on which later). But to compare it to the nearest empirical data I have at hand, which is what I listen to, I really don’t think it stacks up.
Of course, Reynolds et al are deliberately discussing ‘pop’ in a broad sense, which is something I exclude myself from to a greater or lesser extent; but at the same time I don’t think I make any especial effort to seek out the ‘new’ or the avant-garde, beyond what is part of the inherent dynamic of punk and indie and alternative music in general. Which if I’m reading it right, the thesis of the Retromania argument is that that dynamic is disappearing or has disappeared. So here’s my top ten list of albums from last year, in
no particular alphabetical order, with links to what I wrote about each:
Christian Scott - Christian aTunde Adjuah
Dan Deacon - America
Grimes - Visions
Julie Feeney - Clocks
Loma Prieta - I.V.
Radiators - Sound City Beat
So Cow/Squarehead - Out of Season
Some Bells - s/t
Woods - Bend Beyond
Xiu Xiu - Always
There are two (Christian Scott and Julie Feeney) in genres that I don’t know nearly enough about to say whether they qualify as ‘retro’ or not in any way. There are several I’m comfortable saying are not retro or backward-looking, in any particular or general sense, but rather do contribute something novel and/or disruptive to the ‘hyperstasis’ of contemporary popular music: Dan Deacon, Loma Prieta, Xiu Xiu and (my favourite, which others have written and understood more about) Grimes.
I mentioned recently that I can see Dan Deacon’s blend of energetic, danceable and cerebral pop as the contemporary equivalent of what critics above a certain age would have liked to have seen in mbv if it had been released around 1993 rather than 2013:
“Wonder 2 is that hallucinatory drum and bass tune Shields once suggested he’d gone and recorded. If that had come out in the mid-90s, the Britpop boys would have all taken their Beatles songbooks and gone home crying”
In other words, while critics are bemoaning the late arrival of what they looked for in the past, perhaps a different form already exists in the present. Maybe Dan Deacon just isn’t that good, although my subjective experience says otherwise. But I don’t really see how, even after three albums, it could be said that what he’s doing isn’t somewhat new and original. It’s forward-looking enough to show a new way of constructing pop and performing it: isn’t that enough?
As for punk, well there’s a whole nest of arguments about originality in it, but something that struck me about the above essay was this quote from Jaron Lanier:
“I have frequently gone through a conversational sequence along the following lines: Someone in his early twenties will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then I’ll challenge that person to play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s. I’ll ask him to play the tracks for his friends. So far, my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance.”
On the one hand that seems like a ridiculously short time period to have clear stylistic differences, but is that because I’ve grown up in a relatively static period? Between 1978 and 1988 does sound more plausible, although I wonder how much of any difference would be due to advancement in recording techniques, in quality and availability? I think there are clear stylistic shifts between earlier decades, at least, in hardcore but which have been accentuated as later bands get easier access to decent recording spaces. Of course the opposite effect also exists as influences pile up and are blended together: Loma Prieta I would class as a ‘part-retro’ band, taking some influence from early 90s abrasive post-hardcore and merging it with more contemporary screamo styles. But overall I think the diversity of such subgenres means that a lot of post-hardcore and punk can be dated quite distinctly.
Xiu Xiu I suppose carry a lot of influence from post-punk, but musically and lyrically it still seems new, in that it expresses things in a way that hasn’t occurred yet. Maybe all this is just a sign of my ignorance of musical history, but I don’t see the retro. And Grimes - well, she may earn comparisons to other outré female artists in the past like Kate Bush, but it seems broadly recognised that what she is doing is pulling things together in her own style, a kind of eclectic digital modernism.
If ‘retro’ is consciously taking elements of the past for (minimal) refashioning in the present, and the opposite is the mythical outpouring of original, transformational creativity, then I think there is also a middle path of artists that explore existing and established forms to see what more can be got out of them before they become exhausted: the ‘miners’. Miners do not have to go back into the past; they merely continue an existing seam. They only cover already-explored ground to get to where they’re going; what they find is not necessarily wholly new, but it is an addition to the existing stock. Most of all, however, there is a sense of an unbroken tradition that sidesteps the issue of ‘retro’: how can you be going backwards when you’re going forward on the same path, and deeper into the mountain of artistic possibilities?
Some may find it claustrophobic, and break out into new tunnels or find a new entrance, but others are happy to keep going on in anticipation of a new lode (ok, I think the metaphor is done now). For these ‘miners’ I think of Some Bells and their mix of rock and folk, with elements of many things from Earth to Bob Dylan, but again not so much ‘retro’ as a continuation of an evolving and increasingly familiar style (it’s there too in much of EMA’s very original work). Or the Irish groups Squarehead and So Cow; the former something of a Nirvana-with-punk-pop alchemy, the latter perhaps more indebted to indie-pop of the preceding decade: not necessarily retro as much as following a clear path for pop music, and what they make of it will be the ‘new’.
That leaves only Woods, who do probably most conform to the ‘retro’ designation as a band reliving the folk-rock of the 60s with a smear of psychedelic freak; and the Radiators (from Space), who produced the most definitively, self-consciously retro record with a collection of 1960s and 1970s covers of Irish ‘beat’ groups - influenced obviously by US and UK sounds of the time. Indeed the band themselves are something of a ‘retro’ entity, being a reformed punk group of 1970s Dublin who in their time made the modernist (as their attitude to Irish cultural and societal conservatism illustrates) post-punk statement that would appeal to Reynolds, in the excellent 1979 Ghostown, but which was itself quite concerned with Ireland’s past. Now they’ve come back from the dead, as it were, to teach us about their (and ours too, of course) musical history - and I like it. But artists like So Cow and Squarehead are clearly Ireland’s musical present, and I like that even more.
I think the obsession about retrospection has as much, if not more, to do with writing about music than music itself. It’s easier to draw parallels with past artists because not only are there more of them, but it’s easier for people to recognise and have heard them now. What if it’s not people’s listening that is trapped in the past, but criticism? Even, or especially, in part as a reaction to breathless hype and shallow publicity material; it becomes tempting to rely on history for perspective and critical context. Personally, as a former student of history I can see both its importance and the danger of its overuse: I think the punk ethos is as much about ‘no past’ as it is about ‘no future’ - we must escape the easy linkages to fully engage with the present, and be critical about every viewpoint. In that sense, I agree with this part of the essay:
“The future Reynolds believes in seems to be just another abstraction—“post-now,” inconceivable in its specifics.
But then maybe the point is just to hold on to the ideal, even in the abstract. Perhaps this is all Retromania can plausibly offer: a defense against a certain type of fatalism, which doubles as an exercise in remembering. Pop really did do these things: possessed, inspired, ignited and transformed on a mass scale. To maintain a belief in the (artistic) future—even just as an empty category—is a means of preserving the memory of desire, of reminding oneself what pop could be, because it once was. The principle then is not to reverse time but to make it reappear, as a past that had substance and a tomorrow with possibility. To resist, in other words, retro’s anaesthetic.”