[10 October 2002]
The new record from France-based pop quartet Tahiti 80 begs the question: how long should good pop stay with us? The gravity of some good pop is such that its weight is felt long after the song is over; who now can forget the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, or the plaintive chorus of “Everybody Hurts”? Yet at the same time, there exists that other breed of pop song that is ephemeral and weightless; Stephen Merritt has ascended to the top of the pop mountain writing songs that remove us to a glorious alternate world for three minutes, and then abruptly end, leaving listeners in a familiar position to the dreamers amongst us. The recollection of happy times past is vague at best, yet substantial enough to infuse the rest of our day with a diffuse good feeling. Such is the great pop divide. Part of the reason that talking (or writing) about overarching themes in pop music becomes so tricky is that any potential analysis needs to incorporate both the gravitas and the escapism of pop in one breath (or sentence).
Tahiti 80, for those unfamiliar with their debut record, Puzzle, come down squarely on the side of the latter. The single off that record, “Heartbeat”, met with some success at college radio, enough so that news of the release of their follow-up LP was greeted in some quarters with the desirable “much-anticipated” modifier. However, Wallpaper for the Soul, a 12-song collection issued on Minty Fresh, the same label that released their debut, runs afoul of the dualistic pop paradigm discussed above on the first song, the title track from the record. If we are to believe Tahiti 80’s press kit, and the lyrics penned by frontman Xavier Boyer, the band’s music transcends the limitations of the pop song, moving beyond ephemeral pleasures into a realm at once metaphysical and apprehensible. In the halls of pop pretension, “Wallpaper for the Soul” surely is not of superlative rank, although it might find its way into the bottom half of the upcoming VH1 special, “100 Most Self-Important Pop Songs of All-Time”. The irony here is that “Wallpaper for the Soul”, and the album that bears the same name, serves as fitting decoration for the walls of only the most vapid amongst us.
This is not to dismiss Tahiti 80’s latest as less than worthwhile. If anything, its naïvely ambitious mission appeals to the romantic in me—if only my soul was wallpapered with breezy pop music, my days would be much happier. Perhaps Boyer et al. make such self-important declarations in all sincerity, and it is certainly refreshing (Minty Fresh, one might say) to hear music both earnest and upbeat at the same time. The American brand of indie pop has evolved to the point where bands must be one or the other (witness the Apples in Stereo and Fugazi). Cynics that we are, we assume any cheery pop to be irony laden (Beck’s Midnite Vultures) or without significance, (the “ephemeral pop” mentioned above). Tahiti 80 tries hard to break the divide down, but fails, in the end, for reasons that remain unclear. Are they simply not the right band to do it? Is the identification of happiness with insincerity too ingrained in the American listener’s mind at this point? In the end, Tahiti 80 have made a record worth listening to, even worth recommending to others, but one that fails at its primary, stated goal: to wallpaper your soul. Gone are the days when pop musicians were content with rocking around the clock, or twisting and shouting. Nowadays, apparently, they won’t stop until they’ve coated your soul, too, and unfortunately for Tahiti 80, that’s proving to be a lot harder than it sounds.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/tahiti80-wallpaper/