Caleb Nichols
Photo: Kill Rock Stars

Caleb Nichols Turns Traumatic Pain Into Infectious Pop on ‘Let’s Look Back’

Indie pop could use more queer icons, and Caleb Nichols has what it takes to become one of them as he shows on Let’s Look Back.

Let's Look Back
Caleb Nichols
Kill Rock Stars
13 October 2023

Caleb Nichols‘ 2022 tuneful and sweet-natured solo debut, Ramon, was an Abbey Road-derived pop-rock operetta that imagined how it was precisely that Mr. Mustard became so mean. “Ramon Mustard”, Nichols decided, got his heart broken by a sailor named Jerome Custard: after the two fell in love, Captain Custard began to worry about homophobic backlash and soon sailed away, leaving young Ramon bereft and, as he aged, bitter as mustard.

Ramon began as a sort of exercise in musical fan fiction, but it took on authentic substance and feeling. Although explicitly a Beatles homage, the album’s sound and mood were strongly guided by Elliott Smith, whose tenderness and pathos deepened Nichols’ case for Mr. Mustard as a “queer icon”, to quote Nichols’s ambitious narrative concept.

It’s a bit disconcerting, then, when the first song on Nichols’ new album, Let’s Look Back, leaps out of the gate with edgy electric guitar, New Wave toughness, snarly vocals, and defiant lyrics that might put you in mind of early Elvis Costello. Nichols serves immediate notice that he’s got more in his musical bag and emotional spectrum than Ramon contained.

This notice is welcome and perhaps no surprise. Although technically a solo debut, Ramon was a desk drawer project initially recorded in 2014-2015. It languished unreleased for years before finding its way to Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon. After re-tracking vocals, remixing, and remastering, Ramon finally appeared in 2022. Despite its youthful vigor, it did not sound like a rookie effort, and Nichols was not a young artist. They’re a veteran of the Bay Area indie pop scene already possessed of plenty of personal and musical history.

That alone makes Let’s Look Back an apt title, but the phrase also sums up the album’s recurrent theme. On the lead track, “Christmas, California”, Nichols wonders: “Who said you should never look back? / I think a liar said that.” (The former baseball writer in me can’t help supplying the answer: Satchel Paige, who lied about his age.) The line prepares the listener to accompany Nichols on a voyage back through their past. Sure enough, the second track, “Demon Twink”, returns Nichols to familiar Elliott Smith musical territory—Smith’s punchier side—while the lyrics give the title’s gay slang term a workout that affirms both Nichols’s larger identity project and, when Nichols repeats the phrase “let’s look back”, the album’s guiding directive.

It’s the third song, though, where Nichols really turns his gaze to the past. “Absolute Boy” is Let’s Look Back’s heart and mind, and at nearly five minutes, its longest track. It’s a simple but eminently hummable tune, anchored in the 1980s (primarily The Cure, it seems), with a winning guitar intro, a sunny melody, and a singalong chorus—except that the lyrics are painful to sing: “Before you hit me / Before you clipped my wings / I was the absolute boy.”

Nichols has thoroughly discussed “Absolute Boy”, detailing his experiences with childhood physical and emotional abuse and his resulting PTSD in the form of severe anxiety and panic attacks. Nichols wrote the song several years ago (in the plural form Absolute Boys, it’s also the title of one of his previous bands’ records) but put it aside. He was doubtful of ever releasing it, “knowing that putting it on the record would mean singing it night after night” in live performances, he wrote, reopening the wounds each time.

The producer of Let’s Look Back, Zach Rogue—who has given Nichols’s music a bright sheen (sometimes a little too bright, to my ears)—urged the song’s inclusion, and it’s hard to imagine the album without it. Although recording the song “transformed it into sort of an anthem for survival and recovery”, Nichols shared, it’s a cry of pain despite its propulsive energy and infectious hook—a case study in the tension that arises from setting dark lyrics to upbeat music. The ear wants to hear something like, say, “Until you kissed me / Until you lifted my wings / I was a dissolute boy.” Instead, the jarring cognitive dissonance of “Before you hit me / Before you clipped my wings / I was the absolute boy” demands keener and much less comfortable attention. “Absolute Boy” is a hard song to sit through. That is not a criticism.

After it’s over, the record’s ensuing track sequencing suggests that Nichols has been liberated, at least provisionally, from the trauma the song voices. The following two tunes on Let’s Look Back, “J’ai Vu La Lune!” (“I Saw the Moon”) and “Don’t You Ever”, are love songs that convey nearly unalloyed joy, the latter buoyed by a lilting 3/4-time backing track that steers Nichols back in the direction of Elliott Smith. It seems clear that when Nichols is at their most Nicholsian, it’s Smith they most naturally resemble, the river out of and into which their music is likeliest to flow.

That is not to say, though, that Nichols is simply a Smith acolyte. Far from it, as Let’s Look Back proves. As the album moves through its second half, it picks up more 1980s echoes, but with Nichols’s distinctly self-identifying stamp that makes those echoes difficult to name—or to be certain that what’s named is correct. I could swear I hear Scritti Politti‘s Green Gartside in a couple of these tracks, for example, but can that really be true? The lyrics also move in either direction from the 1980s, quoting David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust in one song and Rihanna in another. (No need to belabor whether “Limn’s” opening line, “Either/Or”, is yet another Elliott Smith reference.)

Still, even as Let’s Look Back stretches out musically, Nichols continues to return to his musical and lyrical wellsprings. “Stranged”—a skewing of “estranged”, as befits a poet, which Nichols also is—is another Elliott Smith-like acoustic number that restates the theme of looking back and doubles up on it. The line “pining for the feeling of missing you tonight” is a deft expression of nostalgia-for-nostalgia: longing not for the person but for the longing itself; that is, looking back on looking back.

The next track, the rocking “Albatross”, tells us to wear around our necks everything we thought we’d lost, and there’s almost no question that Nichols means the injuries of our past. Abandoning the trauma we receive and inherit is less healthful than laying claim to it. At least we take power over it that way. The song punctures the myth of “closure”—the past isn’t even past, as Faulkner’s famous aphorism reminds us—and it’s not true, as Nichols has forcefully argued online, that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

It makes some of us artists, of course, and it’s cheering to hear Nichols deliver such a confident and successful sophomore album after Ramon, whose agedness at the time of its release and whose elaborate conceptual scaffolding made it hard to get a clear read on exactly what caliber and kind of musician Nichols really was. Perhaps it’s more useful to think of Let’s Look Back as Nichols’s true debut. It’s a convincing one. Every song on this album has at least some melodic or lyrical appeal, and the majority are fully realized examples of craft, all the way down to the unexpectedly spacey-funky final track, “Wicked”, which hints at still more in Nichols’s compositional bag and a bright future ahead for this fortyish relative newcomer. Indie pop could use more queer icons. Nichols has what it takes to become one of them.

RATING 7 / 10