We used to write books. Don’t believe me? Wander the ruins of Barnes & Noble. They’re probably still there. We used to write love poems. A guy named Petrarch wrote a couple. So did Shakespeare. We used to build monuments. Bridges. Pyramids. We used to carve stones and smelt iron and build immovable monoliths that could defy the buffets of time. We devoted our lives to making things that would transcend us. Things that we could pass onto future generations. Things that carved our names into the annals of history and proclaimed that, for a brief moment, we lived and cried and dreamed.
But today we send Snapchats.
And why not? We once used communication as a weapon to stave off time; now it’s the instrument of our surrender. We once sealed our words in paper volumes and clay tablets so that they would outlive the mind that conceived them. Now we stamp our thoughts with a 10-second expiration date. Because in 11 seconds, we won’t mean it anymore. We’ll have new thoughts, new dreams, new memes. And it will get to the point that even when we lift our pens and fight back, we will only be imitating a long-since hollow gesture. Because we will be writing in Snapchats. And 10 seconds later, our books will be meaningless. And our ancestors will have nothing left to remember us by. Only databases filled with expired ideas.
Escape From New York is not a bad album. It is, in fact, a very competent one. Perhaps even a brilliant one. And terribly chic too. The arpeggiators are perfectly tuned and the song titles are super evocative. “Street Stallion.” “Desert Driver.” Tastes like neon. We’ve been here before, right? You’ve heard this album already. It was the soundtrack to that movie you saw on VHS as a kid. The one with the muscle-bound action hero and the permed sex icon. On second thought, it was playing in the background to that Pepsi ad your parents recorded during the movie’s commercial break. Or was it a Sketchers ad? You know, the one with the wall and the actor in the suit.
Do we even remember what these sounds mean? Sure, they carry an endless string of signification; they evoke corporate iconography, globalized opulence, revolving cocktail lounges. But are these images born from our memories or our pop culture? As if we could ever differentiate the two. This is Snapchat Nostalgia: images ripped from context and thrown haphazard into the digital ether. We catch a momentary glimpse and draw connections. A series of Pavlovian triggers that together fabricate an era, or at least the emaciated carcass of one. And like a Snapchat, when you finally receive the message, how do you know if it was a personal image intended for your eyes only or a mass message disseminated identically and indiscriminately to everyone on the sender’s contact list? How do you know if your nostalgia is unique or borrowed? But then again, isn’t that the beauty of the Snapchat? After all, in the blink of an eye, it won’t matter.
I could have written this review before I heard the album. The music is all artifice; the promotional material says it all. And were I to focus solely on aesthetics, I would go so far as to recommend this album. This is a diligently crafted work of replication, and it would be wrong to downplay the skill of the craftsman. If you are a fan of any of the similarly-minded musicians listed at the very top of this review — and believe me, I certainly am — consider this a recommendation.
But there is a difference between craft and art, and it is here that Escape From New York starts to scare me. As soon as you start to dig past the aesthetic and pull apart the lurid veneer of 10-second memories, you find yourself face to face with the void. The cultural touchstones appear the same, but there is none of the complexity of Channel Pressure or the ambition of Themes For An Imaginary Film. This is the flattened sound of vaporwave, and the novelty has worn off. And as you stare into the vast sonic emptiness, you begin to realize how nihilistic this whole enterprise is. Buy this album if you wish, but you won’t be listening to it a year from now. It will become a shelf decoration wedged between other empty plates of black petroleum. And years from now, when you finally go through your record collection and remember how you picked this album up in the summer of 2013, you can rest assured that it will sound as meticulously vacuous as it did when you first bought it.
Because its 10 seconds are already up.