Is to go
To that place
(You know the one)
Where it all began
On a starry night
On a starry night
When it all began”
— Rebekah Del Rio, “No Stars”
At the end of the second episode of the new season of Twin Peaks, we returned to the Roadhouse, a.k.a. The Bang Bang Bar. I was expecting and hoping to see Julee Cruise, the dream-pop singer whose angelic voice and appearance defined the sound of the original series. But the tempo was too fast — well, too mid-tempo — to be Cruise. A synth pattern built and then dropped into a brooding dance beat, a lot of empty air, and a woman’s hazy voice: “Shadow… take me down… with you. For the last time.” Onstage, the singer seemed to have stepped out of a ’60s fashion magazine. She could have been Julee Cruise’s daughter, following in her mother’s footsteps. Her head cocked to one side, the singer observed the audience like a curious alien.
I didn’t recognize the Chromatics when I saw them, or “Shadow” when I heard it, and maybe that’s why it was so perfect: Cruise’s signature dream pop style updated for 2017. Given all that had transpired in the two episodes, I nearly fell off the couch when the song came up. It was perfect. I had no idea what was going on in terms of the plot, but I wanted to weep for these people and for our broken, broken world.
I started wondering who these musicians were inside of the show. Diegetically, as the profs like to say. Does this version of the Chromatics live in Twin Peaks? Did the band members graduate from the local high school or drop out? Do they have day jobs? Or do they scrape by on Roadhouse gigs and out-of-town shows in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Billings? And that brought up other questions, mainly: What’s the scene like in an isolated town deep in the deep woods of the Northwest, a little town where the local legends are about a homecoming queen killed by her father who may or may not have been possessed by a demon?
Well, once you get started down that road, it’s hard to turn back. Is the trip worth it?
As the new season of Twin Peaks meandered and occasionally leapt forward, nearly every episode ended with a musical performance at the Roadhouse. The bands lip-synched to their recordings. At times the move felt gratuitous, or some gesture at a theme we were supposed to pick up, but when these performances worked, they expanded our sense of what had happened in the town of Twin Peaks — what had happened to its people, and what had happened to the sense of the town as a hidden-away secret at odds with the rest of the United States.
In the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, the music Julee Cruise performed with her group — she was known officially as the “Roadhouse Singer” — haunted the town nearly as much as Angelo Badalamenti’s score. In a town where truth is hard to come by, and in a story of fractured subplots, Cruise is a one-woman Greek chorus, and even, sometimes, an oracle. It mattered that she was part of the town, appearing so often at the Roadhouse that you might imagine she had a standing gig there. Like most other residents of Twin Peaks, it seemed like there was nowhere else she could be.
No one in town escaped Cruise’s music because it was their music, too — including, whether she knew it or not, Laura Palmer. In the prequel film Fire Walk With Me, Palmer lives her final days shattered by the discovery that her father Leland is the demon named Bov who has been raping her for years. After this epiphany, and after she’s confronted by the Log Lady — another oracle — Palmer staggers into The Bang-Bang Bar. Cruise is on stage singing “Questions in a World of Blue”, the music by Angelo Badalamenti and the lyrics, like all of those sung by Cruise in the Twin Peaks world, written by David Lynch. Weary and disoriented, Palmer watches Cruise for a moment and begins to make her way through the club toward a table where she’ll wait for two johns.
Palmer never takes her eyes off the singer, and Cruise seems to be singing to her alone. The fatalism in the song, its ethereal combination of noir, soap opera kitsch, and torch ballad, and the broken innocence in Cruise’s voice all materialize into a surface of glass, a mirror in which Palmer sees herself: her tortured heart, everything she’s lost, and everything she’s about to lose.
(Sheryl Lee was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her performance as Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me. She should have been at least nominated for an Oscar. Palmer is a postmodern Hamlet. The script calls for her motives and emotions to twist from one extreme to another and another and another — normally a recipe for disaster — but somehow Lee makes every turn natural, every impossible height and depth utterly real. She’s just as magnetic and grounded in the new Twin Peaks. Even if a fourth season were to consist entirely of her and Kyle McLachlan driving around America reading tweets to one another, I would be down for it.)
Moments like the encounter between Cruise and Palmer weren’t common in the show’s first two seasons or in the film, but there was always an intense, even incestuous, connection between Badalamenti’s romantic, dread-saturated score, its pop expression by Cruise, and the characters. I would have believed that the Roadhouse Singer released her own cassette in D.I.Y. fashion, that it was passed around the high school, that Cruise was an underground celebrity. This intimacy is partly what made the town of Twin Peaks seem so isolated, so us-against-the-world. When characters talked about going to Seattle or Philadelphia, they might as well have been talking about going to the moon. They also seemed like they were betraying the entire town.
The Chromatics’ appearance at the end of “Part Two” was so affecting because it was tonally right while at the same time showing us how much had changed. The context of the scene made a difference, too. For instance: Who are all these young hip people? Millennial professionals! They look like the crowd you’ll see in the art district on a Friday night, people who’ve come in from the suburbs to get their culture on. (Is there a Starbucks in Twin Peaks now? An Urban Outfitters?) And then we watch Shelly, the waitress at Norma’s diner, doing shots with her girlfriends. James Hurley, the former teenage heartthrob, walks in like he’s just gotten off work. In the good old days he was having a secret love affair with Laura Palmer before she died, then fell in love with Laura’s best friend Donna — and then with Laura’s doppelganger cousin Maddy. Twenty-five years later, James carries the same sadness he always carried, but age has made it more believable. Like the rest of us, he’s learned to hide it with an affable smile.
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There was a sense in the original series that Twin Peaks, as a town, could collapse in on itself and disappear. But it hasn’t. It seems to be thriving. Young people have moved in. The Roadhouse was never desolate; everyone went there, and usually nobody asked questions about what happened there. It was part of the town’s public dreamscape. Now it’s just public. Openly, freely public. A pall of shame no longer hangs in the air.
If the scene is a signal that Twin Peaks has become modernized — Norma’s diner, we find out much later, has become a kitschy franchise — then the Chromatics’ “Shadow” signals that the dark heart of the town has not stopped beating. Its primal, dangerous, horrifying qualities are still lurking, though they seem, now, even more at odds with what the town’s residents believe about themselves. Twin Peaks has caught up to the rationality, technology, and capitalism that are common across the rest of the United States. The town is, perhaps, no longer a dream.
But the stage still is, and the musicians who perform there know it. That’s why they seem local. They hold together the ties between the past and the present, nostalgia and progress, desire and reality, and spirit and technology. They seem like an entire subculture of oracles. Watch Chromatics singer Ruth Radelet sing “Shadow” again. Watch Rebekah Del Rio sing “No Stars” as she gazes out at the Roadhouse’s patrons with subdued compassion for what they do not yet know.
Moby and Rebekah Del Rio in Twin Peaks (2017, IMDB)
One of the most heartening and compelling aspects of Lynch’s approach to this new season is his widened musical palette, particularly the inclusion of synth-pop bands like the Chromatics and Au Revoir Simone, who build on the ’50s and ’60s nostalgia with contemporary, cold electronic sounds and rhythms. The latter’s “Lark” hits a point — its chorus — that feels anxiously withdrawn and sweeping at the same time. From there, the palette gets darker, harder.
“Part 5” featured the crunchy nightclub avant-jazz of Trouble doing “Snake Eyes”, as close as the series was going to get to Tom Waits being on stage. There was the IDM producer Hudson Mohawke performing the atmospheric “Human” underneath one of those “I’m not sure who these people are or what they have to do with the story” booth conversations. (Are these people dreams? Who is Billy? For God’s sake, who is Billy?) Late in the season, the Veils stopped in to perform “Axolotl” from last year’s Total Depravity. It was close as the series was going to get to Nick Cave being on stage. The lyrics quote a couplet from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. And yet lead singer Finn Andrews makes the moment his, pleading and swaying like a convert, even as a young woman crawls through the legs of the crowd and eventually, because this is Twin Peaks, screams.
And then, breaking the logic of the show — maybe — and certainly making it harder to imagine that only local musicians play the Roadhouse, here is Nine Inch Nails introduced as… The Nine Inch Nails. Okay then. Maybe they got lost. Maybe they needed to fill in a night between Billings and Seattle.
A stalking piece of industrial metal, “She’s Gone Away” is a direct sonic expression of the horrific supernatural elements in Lynch’s vision, and more specifically, those elements’ infestation of mechanical and technological contemporaneity. It is the soundtrack of the charcoal-faced Woodsmen decades earlier as they crawl out of an irradiated desert.
It is the song you should hear every time Kyle McLachlan’s “Bad Cooper” is on screen, speaking as if his jaw is wired shut and staring at people the way he stares at the night road passing under whatever vehicle he happens to have borrowed, stolen, or hijacked. As much as the lyrics seem to refer to Laura Palmer, the singer seems to have been disoriented by trauma and is desperately trying to “get the feeling back”. In some ways, the real Dale Cooper. More likely: the America that needs to cut its skin in order to feel alive. Situated maybe 15 minutes into “Part Eight”, “She’s Gone Away” also foreshadowed the absolute mind fuck that was to come in the rest of the episode, easily one of the most perplexing and captivating hours of television I’ve ever seen. Suitably, there was no return to the Roadhouse.
Nostalgia Is an Ideology
On the opposite end of the spectrum you had the Cactus Blossoms’ sinister country ballad “Mississippi”, a song that could be written off as an homage to the Everly Brothers or Marty Robbins if it didn’t have the heart of Roy Orbison. A single chord and a moment of close harmony evoke the menace that Lynch has always heard in music usually peddled as nostalgic. You hear that dark nostalgia again in the edges of “No Stars” and the lived-in timbre of Del Rio’s lush but no-nonsense voice.
These organic, retro-vibe performances had their symbolic role in the show; you could match them to certain characters, plots, themes. But they worked because they were powerful on their own, additive terms. One of the strongest episode-enders was Sharon Van Etten and her band performing “Tarifa” from the 2014 album Are We There. The song resists the nostalgia that courses through its own body, resists any firm sense of history and culture, resists any real knowing.
Then, in “Part Thirteen”, James Marshall as James Hurley sang “Just You”, a perfect replication — note the Lynch theme of replicas, doubles, doppelganger — of a ’50s bubblegum ballad. It’s a song written for the show and first performed 26 years ago in Season Two, with James caught in that tender love triangle between Donna and Maddy. The three of them sit on the floor. He’s playing a hollow-body electric and singing into a vintage-looking chrome-plated mic. There are a lot of hormone-driven glances between the three of them. In that episode, the song was a moment of innocence at a point in the show when there didn’t seem to be any more innocence left.
Like the songs it was built to resemble, “Just You” voices ideals that are impossible to live up to. That’s the sadness inherent in such songs. Hurley’s new performance, part of a scheme to win the heart of one of those people talking in the Roadhouse booths, felt out of place and, in fact, creepy because it seemed like James should know exactly how impossible those ideals are. As Marshall played him, he looked like he did know better. The act itself felt nostalgic, a cash-in on our nostalgia for the show.
Otherwise, the show, like Van Etten’s “Tarifa”, resisted the nostalgia in its own blood. The musical palette sounded more modern. We were not trapped in Twin Peaks anymore, and the locales of Buckhorn, South Dakota and Las Vegas seemed not nostalgic but empty and vicious. They’re more of a piece with Lynch’s work since the original Twin Peaks, especially Lost Highway. For whatever missteps there might have been, one success of the new season was how it evoked lost ideals and broken promises and corrupt self-interest — verdicts handed down by nostalgia, however gently — with an utterly contemporary language of sharp juxtapositions. Stillness and long silences were contrasted with sequences of rambling exposition without referents and distorted images and sounds. It was a crash course in the simulacrum. We finally met Diane, but she was a femme fatale… but then she was revealed to be a “tulpa”, a replica. (“Someone manufactured you,” says Mike) Finally, we met the real Diane… and then she disappeared.
Despite all of this, the show was still largely concerned about what has gone missing from contemporary life. Cooper’s imprisonment as Dougie was so frustrating because we longed for not just his optimism but his drive — his former insatiable need to discover and understand the truth. The world around him, around us, seems unconcerned with knowing or understanding, with the exception of Lynch’s Gordon Cole and his FBI team. And with the exception of the musicians. These local acts —
these fictional versions of the Chromatics, Sharon Van Etten, the Cactus Blossoms, Rebekah Del Rio, the Veils, Au Revoir Simone, Hudson Mohawke — don’t share a single ideology or believe in the same answers, but they are trying to answer the same questions: Can we get back what we’ve lost? Despite our feeling of alienation, do we even know what we’ve lost?
Chromatics, Twin Peaks (Photo by Suzanne Tenner © 2017 Showtime via IMDB)
Nine Inch Nails’ “She’s Gone Away” firmly answered, “No”. There is not a single song or musical performance that answers with an unambiguous “yes”, but some, like Van Etten’s “Tarifa” and Del Rio’s “No Stars”, seemed like gambles on the possibility. At the very least, they imagined that they themselves, as performances, could be the answers to those questions. That’s what a stage is: a site for imagining and dramatizing possibilities. Time can be suspended. The veil between what’s real and what’s not can dissolve since these people, their voices, their instruments are real.
Fittingly, Julee Cruise has the last word. In the penultimate episode, she reappears at the Roadhouse for the first time in the new season. Credited not as “The Roadhouse Singer” but as herself, Cruise performed “The World Spins”, a track from her 1989 album Floating Into Night. In the context of the episode in which Dale Cooper, gloriously freed from the prison of Dougie, attempted to rescue Laura Palmer like Orpheus descending into hell to save Eurydice, “The World Spins” didn’t feel nearly as nostalgic as it might have. In fact, it felt brutally honest. The chorus —
Love, don’t go away
Come back this way
Come back and stay
Forever and ever
— is answered at the end of the song by the title phrase: “The world spins”. As in, nothing can keep it from spinning forward. Not your actions. Not love. Not your dreams.
Nostalgia is too easy a critical framework through which to consider Lynch’s work, including Twin Peaks. It only replicates the artistically nostalgic maneuvers and images and sounds that Lynch uses to get to something deeper: betrayal, grief, and renewal.
Take nostalgia at face value in Twin Peaks and what do you have: Audrey Horne’s bobby socks, James Hurley brooding on his motorcycle, and even Laura Palmer as the quintessential blonde beauty, the homecoming queen, tarnished by the scandal of her drug use and sex work. Each of those harkens back to “a simpler time”, but Lynch refuses that idea — or at least refuses the point of origin to which we usually draw those historical images, namely the ’50s. It’s clear he loves those images, but he loves them enough to keep them honest. As we normally find them, they’re always incomplete. Often they’re lies. In the first two seasons of Twin Peaks and in Fire Walk With Me, the town of Twin Peaks was where those lies were revealed, beginning with that moment Laura Palmer saw her father walking out of their quaint two-story home. If there was an innocent time, it was long before Palmer’s childhood, so far back that it ceased to matter.
As the betrayals and grief piled up, the presence of FBI agent Dale Cooper offered the possibility of renewal, primarily through the justice — the closure — of finding Laura Palmer’s killer. Quickly, it became obvious that wasn’t going to be his only role. With the introduction of the Black Lodge, the Red Room, and this entire otherworld, and Cooper’s interaction with them, Lynch slowly started to develop the other meaning of nostalgia. Today it’s defined as the longing for a time in the past, but the concept began as a way of describing the longing to return home. It was about distance, location, and space. Nostalgia is always about the desire to return, but this older version of nostalgia — which hasn’t magically disappeared — could actually be solved. You could, perhaps, find your way back home.
“Home” signifies many things, of course, but among them is truth. The temporal version of nostalgia believes the past holds a truth, or truths, that we should bring back into the present. (#MAGA, for example.) The spatial version of nostalgia is a little different. A long way from home, the soldiers in whom the first homesickness was identified undoubtedly confronted truths that terrified them. Home offered a more familiar, more comforting “truth”. In the end, nostalgia reveals (and/or warns us) that what we call truth is subjective. Nostalgia is an ideology.
In Twin Peaks, home is the source of falsehoods and truths. It’s undependable, shifting, a shadow. (This is one reason why a typical conception of nostalgia fails Lynch’s work.) Home is corrupt. It matters greatly that Laura Palmer was raped by her father in her bedroom and murdered in her hometown. And yet home in a slightly larger sense — the town — seems to be the place where truth can be discovered.
But never on its own. In Twin Peaks, “home” is a portal to a metaphysical reality in which a complete truth is to be found. It may be presented to us unclearly. We may find it horrifying or beautiful. But it’s truth all the same, in Lynch’s world. It matters, then, that the metaphysical realm in Twin Peaks-the-show is deeply rooted to place and sutured to distinct locations including Twin Peaks-the-town. It means that this higher truth is actually attainable.
Two qualities seem important to note, then, about this new season of Twin Peaks. First, it takes place in a triangulation of South Dakota, Las Vegas, and Twin Peaks, with important diversions into New Mexico and Odessa, Texas. This wide map, much wider than has ever been used in the Twin Peaks world, makes it possible to understand and, most importantly, to feel Twin Peaks as the center, the epicenter, the anchor of truth. In short: home. That’s the second quality. Twin Peaks has become the place to which we must return. Why? Despite the normalcy that seems to have invaded it, the town remains strange, and strange has the benefit of being true. The rest of America we see through Lynch’s lens is normal and ugly, as barren as South Dakota and as crass as Las Vegas. For Lynch, normalcy is corruption passed off as innocence, evil passing with a human face, and chaos masquerading as order.
Lynch may be the last popular avant-garde filmmaker whom we can truly call a Modernist: he is deeply invested in a profound sense that something is missing today, that we have become alienated from ourselves and some higher truth, and that we are responsible for this. After all, while the dark forces in the mythology of Twin Peaks have existed for centuries, maybe millennia, they seem to be unleashed by the inciting incident — or our best guess at it, thanks to this new season — that is the first explosion of an atom bomb in New Mexico in July 1945: the Trinity test. Less than a month later, the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy onto a hospital in Hiroshima.
It’s not at all uncommon for the avant-garde to be motivated by what we consider today to be conservative ideas, beliefs, or ideologies. Modernism was fueled by a suspicion of especially technological progress, despair over its costs, anxiety about where it would lead, but its ambiguity came from an understanding that the past was a nightmare and there was no going back, anyway. Lynch’s hallmark use of kitsch and pastiche in Twin Peaks, hallmarks of postmodernism, have always had a modernist motivation. They are used in opposition to that motivation, a way of contrasting it. They hide and reveal a love for the pastoral, for the natural, for the spiritual link between man, nature, and a higher plane, for magic, but most of all, for a truthful perception of “originarity”. Defined by the philosopher Boris Groys in his book On the New as a “proximity to the origin and conformity with an extra-cultural real”, a truth that is universal and distinct, “originarity” as a concept is what we mean by “home”. But as we live it, it’s the desire for home and the longing to go there. To find, in the end, resolution.
Lynch’s work is more than this. If I had more room, I’d complicate the modernist and postmodernist qualities of his work. The truth is, he doesn’t fit neatly in either, primarily due to the collision of his styles and motives.
As it stands, nothing about Twin Peaks has been resolved. It may be goodbye, or only goodbye until another time. That suspension of knowing is what I think was being worked out in the strongest musical performances included in this new season — the suspension vexed by the desire to know. Through sound and image, through context and on its own, the stage at the Roadhouse is the same as any stage in any club you can find in what’s left of the United States: a suspension of disbelief that the story is over.