I feel like nostalgia plays an abnormal role in the lives of young adults in America. It’s always been a powerful tool for marketing and propaganda — just talk to an aging boomer about the 60s or look at the way some right wing politicians fetishize the 50s — but the fact that right now a bunch of young men and women living in what is commonly held to be the prime of their lives are walking around wearing t-shirts spangled with Rainbow Brite or an NES control pad… I’d say that’s pretty unique. Moreover, considering that psychologists are starting to put forward a new stage of development known as emerging adulthood as a halfway step between our teen years and our role as full-grown adults, I’m starting to wonder if it’s entirely healthy. I mean, historically speaking, the idea of “teenagers” is a novelty; now you’re saying we’re not real grown-ups until we’re 25? Shit ain’t right, man.
Recent trends in popular music paint a similar picture of young men and women seeking to regress back to the halcyon days of the Reagan administration both through the work they produce (M83, pretty much every chillwave artist ever) and through their means of distribution (the recent cassette resurgence). This holds equally true for Adventure, a.k.a. Benny Boeldt. “Poison Diamonds” from his self-titled debut could function as a thesis statement to that record and to his body of work as a whole: an 8-bit videogame theme blown out to the proportions of a club jam, intercut with choice lines from Rutger Hauer’s monologue at the end of Blade Runner. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Set into this new context, Roy Batty’s dying meditations are less about the transience of life and the tragedy of mortality, and more about the heartbreak of having to eBay your Sega Genesis in order to pay your electric bill. Hence, even though Lesser Known marks a fairly radical departure from the Saturday morning sugar-buzz electronica of Boeldt’s previous effort, it is still very much in line with the artist’s established M.O. While the overall record is much more song-centered and even features honest-to-goodness vocals on many of the tracks, he’s still basically stockpiling scraps from his childhood.
The lead track, “Open Door,” functions as a transition between the two albums. The pulsing, wordless soundscape recalls the daring exploits of Adventure but sounds fuller and more polished, undergirding the bouncing synthesizers with an insistent, Dead or Alive dance-club bass beat. Its sound is unabashedly retro, even as it exploits the broader range of today’s digital musical technology for a girthier sound. The rest of the album digs deeper into the 80s-pop-for-the-contemporary-indie-kid aesthetic. The lazy sway of “Smoke and Mirrors” summons the swagger of Duran Duran. The wistful, cloudlike synth of “Fools Paradise” and the piercing, anxious keyboard jabs of “Rio” reference two distinct phases of OMD’s career. The album winds down with the Cure-like melancholy of “Meadows.” Over the course of the album, therefore, Boeldt manages to elide a broad range of musicians and artists with sharp differences in aesthetic and philosophy into a seemingly homogeneous whole. His efforts to update his source material even as he imitates it make me think of Blank Dogs, but whereas Mike Sniper seems to genuinely appreciate the context out of which the artists he pays homage to emerged, I feel like the only context Boeldt has for his sources is that they’re all bands that you’d would be likely to hear during your local radio station’s retro 80s hour.
Unsurprisingly, the songs I like best are the ones that remind me the least of the closing credits of a John Hughes movie. “Lights Out” checks its nostalgia at the door and puts that new wave synth to work in the service of a hot dance nugget. The album’s biggest surprise, however, comes in the form of “Electric Eel,” a sprawling, squirming, seven-minute opus that blindsides the listener with left-field volleys of shredding electronic goodness. What these tracks show above all else is that Boeldt is fully capable of building exciting dance music out of the scraps and bones of 80s pop, which only makes the rest of the album seem like that much more of a missed opportunity.
Certainly, music is an art form that lends itself pretty naturally to nostalgic evocations. A lovingly mimicked tone or a carefully chosen phrase is capable of kicking the door of memory wide-open and eliciting feelings long-forgotten. The problem is that when you make it your raison d’être to remind an audience about how awesome a particular period of their life was, you tend to cut yourself off from anyone who didn’t live through it or who’s tired of being reminded of it. Frankly, I’ve just about had my fill of the 1980s, or at least of the 1980s as envisioned through the lens of Brat Pack films and synth pop. Why don’t we just take what was valuable from the decade, fashion it into something cool, and save all the nostalgia for some time when we’re actually old?