>all words: JEB GAVIN, all photos: JEFF MARTIN
Can you be nostalgic for a time five minutes ago? Last week? Last year? Our modern appreciation for nostalgia is rooted in a return to the good old days of our youth, but as we now extend our youth further and further into the future (and are forced to borrow the past from our parents,) is there ever a point where we can stop and look back fondly without returning to that moment in an instant? Can we even qualify things as nostalgia, given we have the means by which to recreate our youth (as we are so closely removed from it?) Is it still nostalgia if you’re borrowing it from someone else?
I’d love to say these questions and more were answered by The Postal Service last night at Merriweather Post Pavilion, but not everything is so cut and dry. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great show, likely one of the best we’ll see at such a large venue this summer regardless of emotional attachments. I haven’t seen Ben Gibbard since the Narrow Stairs tour brought him to Merriweather five years and 50 pounds ago, and haven’t seen Jenny Lewis since probably 2005 when Rilo Kiley played the 9:30 Club (a brief aside: NEVER.NOT.JENNY.LEWIS. She is our generation’s Stevie Nicks, with a sparkly Zatanna jacket and Flying V guitar. More on that later.)
In a sense, it was nice catching up with them. Musically, The Postal Service is an amalgamation of cooing, folksy, alternately fluttering and soaring vocals and one-step-above 8-bit electronica; their sound issues forth from the Pavilion as though the structure were designed specifically for it. The stage was backed by vertical panels of LEDs spliced between long, burnished aluminum tubes reaching up to the rafters and banking out over the stage. The effect, aptly enough, as was though someone was attempting to digitize a set of tubular bells.
Speaking directly to the idea of digitizing something profoundly analog (and because I spent about an hour last night after the show figuring out how one should properly mic a xylophone like Laura Burhenn played,) I suppose the question becomes: when we look back at our past are we attempting to recreate our best moments, or are we simply reveling in the cultural touchstones we associate with youth? If it’s the former, then distance seems essential. I am not yet old enough to look back ten years ago through rose-colored glasses. As cheerful as it makes me to think of lying on the warm stone coping outside Skinner Hall in college, listening to The Execution of All Things on headphones and constructing elaborate fantasies in which Jenny Lewis and I live and work together like Charles and Ray Eames, I cannot unbind that from knowing what an utter waste of a person I was; too lazy to work hard, too full of myself to accept help, too much a coward to change. But if it’s the latter, we need look no further than the internet- repository of the media of our youth and communities dedicated to worshiping and keeping that media.
Then again, this need to speed up the cycle of history to immediately arrive at nostalgia is itself suspect. It’s a function of so much of our culture being recycled. Starting in the ’90s, we began to re-consume the ’60s and ’70s. By the ’00s, we’d moved on to the ’80s, and some aspects of the ’90s themselves. We’ve spent decades rehashing old decades, perhaps at the behest of our parents and teachers, foisting their culture (and by extension, their nostalgia) off onto us (for better or worse. Seems pointless to try and make a judgment one way or another this far down the rabbit hole.) Suddenly, what we remember as the good old days were really our own youth coupled with, or in some cases bulked up by youth indicators of a previous generation. So watching The Postal Service perform Give Up, I can’t help compare it to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
It started with Jimmy Tamborello’s beard- some crossed wire in my head seeing him as a hybrid John McVie/Mick Fleetwood rhythm section behind laptops. Given my belief Jenny Lewis is in fact our Stevie Nicks, that makes Ben Gibbard Lindsey Buckingham (spiritually, not actually.) Finally Burhenn would be Christine McVie, which is a thought that tickles me mostly because I think she’d absolutely blow the doors off “You Make Loving Fun” or “Songbird.”
Even the material of the albums, while not one to one, have strong parallels. Gibbard’s lyrics about longing, love, and relationships aren’t unique in the annals of pop music, but their earnestness, and the juxtaposition of naked emotion and playful harmony feel like an evolutionary descendant of Rumours. But I have no direct connection to Rumours. I can vaguely remember in high school a teacher making a joke about Clinton using “Don’t Stop” as a campaign song. Beyond that, I like the album, but there was never a moment dredged from my past I can point to and say, “this, this takes me back.”
When the droning intro to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” kicks in, I remember friends telling me their moving-to-DC stories. I remember the feeling of having friends up to my dorm room, or getting my first apartment and buzzing them in. But beyond the memory itself, do I attach any emotional resonance to these memories, or is it just a good song and a reminder of my past? When they closed the show with “Brand New Colony,” everyone was screaming along, “everything will change.” I wondered if that was true.
The first thought that popped into my head was of the cover of the Flaming Lips’ “Suddenly Everything Has Changed,” the B-side to the single of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” I can recall being half asleep in the undergrad physics lounge, face to the back of the couch listening to the song, paralyzed by the fear that not only will everything change but that it had suddenly changed and I missed it. This might well be the only real demarcation between nostalgia and ersatz micro-nostalgia: nostalgia makes you feel bad in a good way about something you did. Simply remembering yesterday’s screw-ups doesn’t count, regardless of whose memory it is. As though I needed the my thoughts muddied any further, the first song the sound guys played after the lights came on? LCD Soundsystem’s “I Can Change.”