Friday, July 2, 2010

Over Analysis: Nostalgia for a "Younger Us"

One of the problems facing a band whose first release receives quite a bit of hype is how to keep that buzz buzzing, how to create brand loyalty and keep customers returning for that ninety-first frappuccino. For too many bands, the answer is to release the second album as soon as possible to try to keep the hypemachine hyping. This leads to many obviously rushed follow-ups that kill the band’s or artist’s sales (see: Cross, Christopher; Daddy, Puff; Doctors, Spin) and street cred (see: Ferdinand, Franz; Strokes, the; Yeahs, Yeah Yeah).

This was the problem facing Japandroids, whose 2009 full-length debut, Post-Nothing, received universal acclaim and found a spot on many year-end lists. How to follow this success? Japandroids’ hectic tour schedule—seriously, the only time these guys take a break from the road is when one of them is hospitalized—kept them from the studio, which saved them, for the time being, from the half-assed, rush-job, sophomore slump.

Japandroids instead opted for the buy-ninety-frappuccinos-receive-one-free-valium-prescription punchcard method, keeping their fans’ loyalty whetted by nonstop touring and one-off releases. The first such release, No Singles, a compilation of the band’s first two self-released EPs, dropped in May 2010. The Vancouver duo followed this with a truly brilliant stroke of marketing—a series of (ahem) singles. Throughout 2010, Polyvinyl will release five Japandroids 7” singles, all limited edition, all on clear vinyl. Each single includes an original song written during the Post-Nothing sessions, and a b-side cover of bands like X and Big Black.

The second installment in this series, “Younger Us” b/w “Sex & Dying in High Society,” is set to drop on 16 July, though “Younger Us” has been making the rounds on the Internet and satellite radio for a few weeks. In terms of sound, “Younger Us” represents something of a departure from the successful formula of Post-Nothing. As one reviewer from another little music blog put it, “Younger Us” shows “this band has more to offer than the angular, fuzzed-out frenzy that we already know they do so well.”

That something more Japandroids has to offer is equal parts power pop, garage rock, and—dare I say it—emo. While the guitars and vocals are still heavily fuzzed-out, the song structure seems more straightforward than much of their previous releases, with a melody more clear and catchy, and replete with “whoa-oh” backing harmonies. As my fellow PoMo Jukeboxer James Brubaker so succinctly put it after hearing this song, “Japandroids are emo for grownups who came of age listening to emo.”

This description is all the more apt when we consider the song’s theme, which is feeling nostalgic for “the good ole days” when you’re still too young to feel true nostalgia. In a sense, we have a speaker looking forward in time to a period when he’ll be able to look back on these youthful exploits and reminisce about his younger self. In a similar case of prolepsis, the speaker of Robert Frost’s most famous—and most grossly misunderstood—poem says he “shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence.” So too will the speaker of “Younger Us,” though his sigh, unlike the ambiguous sigh of Frost’s speaker, will most certainly be one of wistful pining.

Structurally, the lyrics of “Younger Us” are divided into two sections. In the first, the speaker asks an unnamed comrade to “remember” the glory days had by their younger selves. “Remember when we had them all on the run,” Brian King sings, “and the night we saw the midnight sun.” These first two events show that giddy energy of youth, the feeling of being indestructible. In this same vein, the speaker then asks his compatriot to remember, “saying things like ‘we’ll sleep when we’re dead.’” In addition to reminiscing for the good times of non-stop partying, this line reveals the naivety that accompanies youthful abandon, which is reinforced when the speaker reminisces for “thinking this feeling was never going to end.” While the “younger us” could be naïve enough to think the good times would never end, the “older us” have realized that they must.

After this first verse repeats, we have the song’s chorus, or the closest thing to a traditional chorus. Here, the speaker asks his friend to “remember that night you were already in bed / said fuck it, got up to drink with me instead.” These lines are central to the song’s thematic meaning, representing the difference between youth and maturity. The speaker’s friend had gone to bed, presumably because of the next morning’s responsibilities, something like work or school for which he would need to wake early enough to disallow drinking the night away. But while maturity would consider the responsibilities and remain in bed, here the youthful friend says, “fuck it” and gets up to drink with the speaker. This devil-may-care attitude toward responsibility is what the speaker asks his friend to recall with him.

This trope of asking the comrade to reminisce makes up the song’s first section. In the second, the speaker now asks not for remembrance, but for those “good ole days” to be given back to him. The speaker asks to be given, in turn: “that naked new skin rush” that comes from youthful merrymaking; “that you & me to the grave trust,” or the ability to trust one’s friends implicitly; his “girls learning love, wild and free”; and “swimming through the streets” with his boys. In each of these lines, the speaker asks to recapture these great times. Each line is followed by the request, “give me younger us,” which suggests it is the compatriot, and not the speaker, who has matured beyond the abandon of the “younger us.”

This movement from requests to remember, to requests for return represents the movement from reminiscence to true nostalgia, which always contains the bittersweet longing to recapture or reenact one’s memories. We see this transition still clearer in the repetition of the chorus, when the speaker asks his comrade not to remember, but instead to give him “that night you were already in bed / said fuck it, got up to drink with me instead.” The speaker is asking his audience to become the person he once was.

In this nostalgia for the good times experienced by a “younger us,” here we have a young adult, likely in his late 20s or early 30s, longing for the freedom and exuberance of youth. If, as Jay-Z, in his infinite wisdom, once said, 30 is the new 20, then here the speaker really has nothing to be nostalgic for, still being “younger” enough to say “fuck it” and get up and drink. However, the difference is that he’s old enough now to realize that the good feeling will end eventually. Nothing, especially thrills, can last. This naïve ignorance is what the speaker misses here, causing this premature sense of nostalgia. While “Younger Us” may differ sonically from earlier Japandroids songs, this prolepsistic nostalgia for the whimsies of youth are something we’ve heard them do so well on other great tracks like “Young Hearts Spark Fire” and “Sovereignty,” which suggests Japandroids are the quintessential quarter-life-crisis band.

Polyvinyl will officially release "Younger Us" on 16 July. You can pre-order the 7" single here. (I received my copy in the mail yesterday, so there are definite advantages to pre-ordering.) The release is limited to 2500 copies, so you better hurry.

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