Is Nostalgia In Music Really Such A Bad Thing?

On Monday, Simon Reynolds’ new book, Retromania was published by Faber & Faber. In case you’ve missed the masses of editorial surrounding it, it’s a weighty tome that deals with “pop’s chronic addiction to its own past,” as Reynolds wrote in the Guardian this week. He closed his ruminations on pop’s obsession with self-recycling by questioning, “Hipstamatic-style apps also raise another question: when we listen back to the early 21st century, will we hear anything that defines the epoch? Or will we just find a clutter of reproduction antique sounds and heritage styles?”

History Of Apple Pie

Admittedly, I’m yet to read Reynolds’ latest (I’m halfway through Louise Wener’s great Just For One Day, about her adventures in Britpop) but the upshot of his comments seems to be that our addiction to nostalgia is a bad, counterproductive thing. Naturally, being an erudite man he makes a fine point about our youthful memories being diluted by our present wish for photos to look older, for pop to sound wistful – and equally the abundance of artists willing to endlessly photocopy the past rather than push sound forward is irritating. I do a huge weekly blog trawl to find material for our On Repeat page, and the amount of mentions of “C86 fuzz” and “sunbleached bedroom jams” makes my skin crawl. The History Of Apple Pie can go do one. As can Yuck and Vivian Girls. Don’t even get me started on Brother’s “gritpop”.

The flipside of this – finding bands that do genuinely seem to be pushing things forward – is that any examples you put forward are easily refuted. Bands like Factory Floor, Jai Paul and Buke & Gass are all incredibly innovative and not lounging around in the past, but Throbbing Gristle, ‘90s R&B and Crass prove their undoing – though it hardly bears pointing out that bands are bound to draw sounds from the past.

However, there are plenty of acts out there putting a unique spin on what Reynolds (and legions of bloggers) terms “fake nostalgia”, turning halcyon sounds into something cinematic and purposeful – and novel too. Metronomy’s latest album, ‘The English Riviera’, is a little in hock to Steely Dan and Hall & Oates, but incontrovertibly unique too. It reimagines Mount’s native Totnes as a slick, romantic paradise, a rarified Monte Carlo. I live near there. It’s certainly neither slick nor conventionally romantic. Yet on record, the admittedly lovely grey shingle of the beach you go past on the train to Cornwall becomes “endless beaches that go on and on / It’s magical”.

Summer Camp set their stock by reimagining teenage summers past with acute precision – rather than conjuring chillwave clouds that hum limply with vague memory – with their early songs taking characters from Heathers, My So Called Life and John Hughes’ films as their starting point. Their newer material sees them writing their own teen classics, of heartbreak and the kind of hysterical overreaction you can only get away with when drunk on hormones, creating a whole world that’s aeons away from smoggy old London.

Lastly – though obviously there are countless more good examples – Destroyer, aka sometime New Pornographer Dan Bejar, releases his new album ‘Kaputt’ in June. Drawing from the sounds of Sade (stay with me), smooth jazz and The Blue Nile (who themselves were massive escapists), it’s smoother than your dad’s face back when those bands were topping the charts, and lyrically, a romp through the comparatively exotic, seedy climes of ‘80s Miami or LA. His storytelling is wryly dark, and pretty peerless in these modern climes, and all three bands are proof that binging on the past needn’t be proof of laziness, or lack of imagination.