Nostalgia is a curse. A pox. A condition described in 1688 to describe Swiss mercenaries in lowland France longing for the mountains of home. It gives me shivers when I see it ride roughshod over contemporary culture. Let’s not forget that the belief in ‘better times past’ that dictate the music of La Roux (the 80s), Oasis (the 60s) and The Darkness (the 70s) is the same belief that feeds Trumpian supporters and Brexiteers. A fear in confronting the modern world and pride in the regressive slide back. Too often it’s used as a shield against the Now and a dereliction of responsibility for the ever evolving culture of society. By falling back in on styles past, especially when utterly divorced from the geopolitical and economic conditions that led to their initial creation, we absolve ourselves from dealing with our current situation. Jack White may relish in recording albums entirely by analogue means to emulate the sound of his Blues heroes, but it’s a selfish choice. He has the luxury to do that whereas those who currently live as the original Blues artists did (as in, in abject poverty) depend on digital means as a way to fully express themselves in the manner of Bluesmen. The genre and ‘sound’ detaches itself from it’s cultural context, which in turn temporally develops to gain a new ‘sound’. Where exactly it’s ended up in is up for debate, but to hazard a guess I’d say in localised rap scenes across the globe (Rusangano Family in Ireland, Die Antwoord in South Africa etc.).
The counter argument follows thus; nostalgia is, contrary to it’s roots as a malady, an independent emotion that we collectively employ to root ourselves within our culture. Worshipping the past provides immediate connection with those who we believe share our beliefs and ideals. Equally it provides a defined core with which we can socially group ourselves; “You like underground 80’s avant-rock? Me too!“. There are, in fact, many positive reasons for nostalgia and it’s effect on us so this is far from a finished debate, however my argument is more settled on the application of total nostalgia and it’s creative limitations. By ‘total nostalgia’ I mean appropriating wholesale an anachronistic style set and arbitrarily rejecting elements that diverge from your subjective application. Wow, that’s a sentence to save for the PhD… In other words, writing music that sounds like it could be, for example, from the 90’s without a full grasp of how that music developed in the first place. To me it feels limited and unreal. An attempt by the artist to gain passing kudos by leeching off the cultural work of others. It’s equally unreal when these same artists (Oasis being a major example) bemoan the mainstream which by it’s very definition is built on leeching off the cultural work of others. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the resulting music can’t be truly heartening. After all, Oasis did write Wonderwall. And if the talent behind this ‘total nostalgia’ is utterly steeped in the tradition and capable enough to pull it off, then I suppose I should just eat my words. With that in mind, I should probably mention Vulfpeck – Christmas in LA.
I should loathe Vulfpeck, a group of insanely talented/trained funk musicians (the differentiation between talented and trained is something to save for another time) who actively use their skills to produce an exceptionally sleek groove. To quote Wikipedia:
“after reading an interview with German producer Reinhold Mack, band founder Jack Stratton conceived of Vulfpeck as an imagined German version of the U.S. session musicians of the 1960s such as Funk Brothers, Wrecking Crew, and Muscle Shoals.”
As a technical exercise, I give this much respect, but I don’t like conceit and I don’t like imposing barriers, especially when that skilled. If you knowingly plan a stylistic application, especially one that assumes what it is to be ‘German’ when you are not so, you open up a very narrow path for yourself. Admittedly my inherent bias has me deifying poly-stylistic legends like Bowie, Queen, Faith No More et al, artists who turned their skill to as many genres as they could and achieving uniquely interesting pieces in the process. Again, I’ll save questions about ‘authenticity’ and ‘purpose’ for another time, this is just where I stand as a critic. But I still bought Vulfpeck’s ‘Thrill of the Arts’. I still follow them intently and am often rewarded with gems like the groovy new single Hero Town, actively appropriating nostalgic kudos with the addition of Prince’s former drummer, Michael Bland. This is going to sound super harsh and I don’t fully mean it to, but by seeing it for what it is, by knowing all the appropriation and opinionated structures within their music, I feel I can like it more. My personal opinions about music don’t have to stop me liking it. Critical thinking, innit.
Of all their music, the song I return to time and time again, the song that introduced me into their world and began my heavy analysis, was Christmas in LA. Like Hero Town, it features a veritable god in David T. Walker (erstwhile guitarist for The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock etc.) prominent in the mix. Equally by being a Christmas song it falls smack bang into yet another highly visible show of nostalgic reverence, this time to Donny Hathaway (who wrote the joint-best Christmas song ever), Boney M and co. Finally, the text sounds like hell. Spending Christmas in LA (as a European) must be the most awful experience. So many of our Eurocentric traditions (the trees, the snow, the gingerbread, the booze) would make me utterly depressed if enjoyed in blue-sky sunlight. That last one is a personal gambit, we never really saw much sun in December on my battered isle and I equate Christmas to huddling around a lit fire in tipsy reverie. By rights I should hate this song. But I don’t. I can’t. I challenge you not to like it. I challenge you not to like Vulfpeck and the controlled cacophony they create. We have to be critical of the things we like. We have to know why we like them beyond simply following the masses. Beyond simply appropriating what we think is cool. Vulfpeck are cool, knowingly so. Still, I like them. A lot.
What a backhanded compliment…