[16 April 2009]
It has been said that pop culture moves in 20-year cycles, that each era is never so much a clean slate but rather a constant resuscitation of the past as adapted to the here and now. It is an observation that at once feels highly critical, suggesting a lack of creativity, but then later brings the realization that while technologies and immediate political concerns may change, we largely do not. Think of the cycle, instead, as an ongoing desire to understand ourselves through examinations of the recent past, steeped in a potent mixture of fond nostalgia and gnawing anxiety over the legacies that we are passing on to our children. It is what is at the heart of the ongoing deluge of cinematic biopics fixated on the baby boomer (and immediately post-) eras. Find in everything from Platoon to Forrest Gump to Almost Famous to Milk this aching need to weave a coherent thread through the chaos of our histories through sound and image. The fact that music is never far from the core of all of this—note how many of these biopics center around our musical icons, and note how even the ones that do not are invariably driven by soundtracks that understand the power of pop songs as historical shorthand—speaks to both its succinctness as a cultural cue and its status as one of the few uncorrupted products of our collective experience. If we provide the next generations with nothing else, the reasoning goes, we will at least have left them with some awesome music.
If 2009 places us at the end of yet another cultural cycle, then it means we are currently living in a distorted carnival-mirror image of 1989, a year which undoubtedly leaves any number of parallels with our current one to play with. In pop music, though, 1989 may now be best remembered for what it wasn’t than for what it was, a link in the chain that connected the decade’s increasingly distant trends and innovations to the next one’s sharp turns towards immediate relevance. Take Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992) as the two most influential albums of the early part of the ‘90s and remember how they served, for critics if not necessarily for their creators, as harsh rebuttals to the increasing frivolousness of commercial rock (U2 perhaps notwithstanding) and hip-hop (Public Enemy, ditto) at the dawn of the new decade. New wave, the sound that most of us are talking about when we refer to “80s music”, meanwhile, was making its own way towards commercial irrelevance. Circa 1989 it existed mainly as an ingredient of the chilly dancefloor drama of enduring acts like Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode. No longer the gleaming sound of the beginning of the decade’s promised future, new wave now took on the rusted antiquity of a discarded World’s Fair monument, making way for a new commercial mainstream that valued pained authenticity over luminous polish.
Plushgun is the homemade synth-pop project of Brooklynite Daniel Ingala. His full-length debut Pins and Panzers evokes the similar feeling of arriving just as another cycle completes. If the current decade has taken its cue from the ‘80s in any meaningful fashion, it has been most transparently visible in the proliferation of Joy Division-inspired indie-rockers that flourished in the wake of Interpol. Still, more than a few critics have made note of the palpable mark that new wave’s shimmer and squeak has left on everyone from the Postal Service to Gwen Stefani. If Ingala’s music falls anywhere along the New Wave axis, it is sqarely on the shiny, commercial end of the spectrum. He sings in the same airy and delicate style, peppered with only the vaguest hint of mock-Brit sneer, that populated any number of mid-‘80s MTV playlists. His songs are smoothly melodic but never without a pulsating beat at their core, all halfway between bedroom-pop confessionals and dance floor euphoria. This isn’t the new wave of Factory Records and Liquid Sky, it is the new wave of Pac-Man and John Hughes. Which is to say, this is new wave as most of us actually experienced it, from the comfort of our living rooms and junior high dances.
If Plushgun is a late arrival to a party, though, Pins and Panzers nevertheless stands as one of the most guileless and refreshingly unironic entries in the latest batch of retro new wavers. WIthout a hint of hipster posturing, Ingala’s appropriation of the new wave sound feels completely natural, to the point that it would be impossible to imagine these songs fitting in among any other sonic context. The suburban teenage angst of “How We Roll” and “Union Pool” needs these razor sharp synth hooks to locate Ingala’s collision of adolescent petulance and carefree exuberance, just as the urgent drum-machine throb that runs through “Just Impolite” is essential to the song’s mixture of gentle encouragement and anthemic reach (though the reference to Johnny Cash feels as oddly out-of-place as the nod to Talking Heads in “A Crush to Pass the Time” does not). The charmingly mock-brooding atmosphere of “The Dark in You” would not be half as effective were the song not constantly threatening to turn into Ministry at any point. Nor could the rush of frantic drum clicks and keyboard sweeps on “14 Candles” be removed without severing ties to eternal synth-pop muse Molly Ringwald.
All of this adds up to a perfectly solid and instantly likeable pop record, to be sure, but where Ingala appears to be genuinely tapped into something meaningful is on the majestic opening track “Dancing in a Minefield”. A defiant Stonewall-esque snapshot of the dancefloor as a suddenly politicized battleground, the images of “boys kissing boys at the moment when the cops came” and “[holding] ground in a morality police state” stand as perhaps the only moment on Pins and Panzers evoking any kind of topical political fury. Squint a little, though, and the song becomes as much an homage to the original new wave era’s impeding sense of apocalyptic doom in an atmosphere steeped in sexual and nuclear paranoia. A backwards-glancing anthem to his own generation’s grappling with fear and loathing in the harshly divided landscape of post-millennial America, what would have once sounded like a rallying cry now feels, circa 2009, like a happy sigh of relief. And another circle temporarily closes.