We all want to be happy, and who can blame us. We all want to greet every morning with a long, luxurious inhale, our eyes closed as we slightly arch our backs facing the sun and push our hands out to the sides, lift them over our heads, and relax to a more normal posture — and to have each day live up to that greeting. But if you’re any kind of artistic type or thinking person — whether that means actually putting ink to paper, aimlessly dreaming, or just spending a bit too much time down at the pub talking something just this side of bullshit with your overeducated and underemployed friends — you’re likely to think of people who actually match that allergy-medicine-commercial vision of lasting, untroubled happiness as either a myth, or as really effectively but only ever temporarily deluded.
As much as we all want to be happy, the one thing we can clearly derive from the 290,000-odd year history of art is that life has only ever been fleetingly satisfying, much less enjoyable. Even during the most prosperous, safe, and healthy period in the history of our species, the tens of thousands of us with time to really think about these things instead of chasing antelope and digging up tubers tend to regard art that tries to depict simple happiness as dishonest about what life is really like.
Now, with music in particular, there are exceptions to this. No one would ever argue that “Party in the U.S.A.” is great art, or, for that matter “Fanfare for the Common Man,” but here we enter into the hazy question of whether songs like this — pop songs, party music, occasional tunes — exist to represent life, or to help us live it. Because maybe dropping into the fantastical groove of a Saturday night party or swelling with the lie of patriotism are among those rare times when we can feel positive about ourselves and about life, even if only for a few hours or a few minutes or for the length of “Killing in the Name.” Because, of course, stylish, permanent revolution and terminal nihilism are just the inverse of patriotism and happiness, equally simplified and equally delusional.
The tentative promise of evading the trap is (was?) what set so-called chillwave/glo-fi/hypnagogic up to be such a critical success. The touchstones were variously cited as new age music, hyper-clean 80s pop, and, one ring to rule them all, nostalgia. Now, what Don Henley, Yanni, and misremembering your childhood as a lost golden age have in common is that they work hard to paper over the complications of life in a way that superficially seems more thoughtful than Kelly Clarkson, but is really just more insidious for adding the lie of its own supposed depth. Chillwave turned an ear to the fakeness of feeling profound, the sounds of tape stretching and oscillators detuning and static hiss symbolizing the production process that their sources’ hyper-clean recordings attempted to erase. “Here we are,” the hypnagogists told us, “manipulating sound — and your emotions.”
And of course, when that’s the proposition, it suddenly seems like you’ve got the choice of whether or not to be manipulated. The key word is “seems,” though, because the best of the shitgazers, including Small Black, are only superficially opposed to the Don Henleys of the world, in fact sharing the same craft: giving a sense of importance and scale to our actually pretty drab and repetitive everyday lives. With its bombastic drum fills, crystalline synths, and especially its breathy, transporting vocals, “Photojournalist” is to “The Boys of Summer” as “Alien” is to “Avatar” — one feels more gritty, intense, and somehow real while the other tries so hard to be transparent it seems like a well-executed card trick. The truth is that they’re both illusions, because they’re art, and however they’re recorded, certain chord progressions just kind of make us feel like we’re on the beach. The difference is that one (whether or not this is the intent) successfully makes us (and by “us” I mean “Smart People With Glasses”) think it’s realer, closer to our own lives; for example, if you’re reading this website, chances are pretty good that you really should have taken acid with him.
Small Black make this non-distinction a lot clearer on New Chain than some of the acts they’re associated with. They’re not nearly as weird and disorienting and challenging as Ariel Pink, or as understated as Emeralds, or as tribally groovy as Ducktails, or as primally, childishly unrestrained as Pocahaunted. They are making pretty, tightly structured pop songs cheaply, or at least pop songs that sound cheaply made, and pretty, and melancholy, and somehow detached and futuristic. Since right now I’m stuck listening to records on either a pair of headphones or a pair of speakers the size of silver dollars, I can’t really tell the difference between them and Heaven 17. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. If the layer of self-consciousness and reflexivity that they build into their music makes me feel okay about turning off the over-analytic and self-reflexive part of my own brain for the length of a three-minute electro-pop tune that makes me think of old girlfriends, then I’m willing to outsource that work, at least sometimes.