“Everything the same/ Again and again and again.” Soft Cell’s 2002 track “Monoculture” remains one of surprisingly few — and certainly the most wittily caustic — take on what Simon Reynolds calls “retromania.” For critics, the problem with the acceleration of the slavish reproduction of past sounds, their colonization of ever-increasing tranches of the pop landscape, is that it brings one to mirror the repetition in question. Whatever you think of this trend, you find yourself saying the same thing you’ve said before, “again and again and again.”
For psychoanalysis, repetition is associated with death — inasmuch as life is inescapably a process of change over time. But to conclude that retromania is the death of pop music, as many have done, would be, on the one hand, a conclusion that stinks of the love for an unattainable authenticity. On the other, it would ignore the fact that repetition is impossible: even an identical object, if such a thing is possible — the second unit produced on an assembly line — occupies another space and exists in another time. Thus, the “anxiety of influence” becomes not a question of whether (this mitotic) reproduction takes place at all, but what the characteristics are of the object (i.e.,“lost time”) thus brought forth, how it identifies and relates to the mother (another subject beloved of psychoanalysis). Does the subject (the artwork) reproduce the mother internally as a result of grief due to her inevitable loss? Does it arrive at a Freudian, masculinist, and autonomist maturity, in which the subject successfully separates from the mother (in doing so, we might note, repeating the father)? Or is there an attempt at a reparative approach in which the subject recognizes its own admixture of love and hate for that which is gone?
Until now, Ice Choir frontman Kurt Feldman has been best known as the drummer of twee darlings The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and for chiptune shoegaze in The Depreciation Guild. On Afar — joined by Violens’ Jorge Elbrecht as mixer and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek as guest vocalist — he turns his aestheticist sensibilities to another of the past’s forking paths: New Romanticism. In terms of the self-recognition of unoriginality, and the reparative attempt, what Ice Choir brings to its 80s MOR synthpop — which reminds one deeply and inevitably of Scritti Politti circa Cupid & Psyche 85 (an impression made stronger by Feldman’s creamy vocals) — is an overtly literary sensibility. Noteworthy is the reference to Keats, in particular on the final track, “Everything Is Spoilt By Use” (a quote from the ode The Realm of Fancy). Alas, the lyrics are not always as distinguishable as they could be, which, though a certain gauziness is nicely poetic, is also a pitfall for such an approach, such a sensibility.
Green Gartside’s move from raucous, Gramscian anarcho-punk to sweet pop, in which his wit and theory were submerged (though still visible to those in the know), was also an attempt to use the intellect to redeem a culturally majoritarian move. Like all of his endeavors, Gartside’s shift was deeply theorized, but it nonetheless echoed Thatcher’s dictum of “no alternative.” You wonder whether the explosion of retro music since the 80s and particularly throughout the noughties — the period in which the neoliberal consensus slowly but surely took complete and unquestionable hold — is a response that makes manifest a deep lack and a grief at the center of Western culture, or at least at the center of the psyche of Western artists. In any case, where Gartside had the intellectual nous and technical talent to create something original, the point of difference in the case of Afar — which, as Derrida and Deleuze have examined in different ways, is repetition’s Other and its raison d’être — isn’t so thoroughly reparative.
I don’t want to suggest that the pastiche here isn’t done very well, evoking the full toolkit of description as crystalline, etc., and including the era-appropriate brushes of synthetic R&B. It all works best at the odd moment when the beats are ramped up (though never to dancefloor proportions), as on the track from which the project takes its name or the beautiful album highlight “Two Rings.” I’m the kind of person who likes this kind of thing, and I like this kind of thing. If Blade Runner were utopian rather than dystopian, this might be the soundtrack. But perhaps the point is precisely that utopias are generic fantasies, while dystopias get down to the (nitty) gritty. We might wonder how Keats’ line applies to revivalism itself: to what extent are the shambling hordes of back-from-the-grave genres “spoilt by use”?
Where’s the voice, however soft,
One would hear so very oft?
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth.