If you're between the ages of 21 and 40, there's a good chance you've been forwarded one of those "You know you're a child of the '80s if . . ." emails several hundred times since you first got an email address. You know, those laundry lists of semi-amusing things like "you know who shot J.R." or "you ever wore a banana clip" or "you have vestiges of carpal tunnel syndrome from your Atari 2600". While the qualifying criteria on such lists fall far short from achieving the universality they purport to have, playing as they do upon an erroneous assumption that we all hold a common set of cultural memories regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background, if you happen to belong to the particular niche to which the list is pitched, they actually do hold fairly true. Well, add another to that flawed list: You know you're a child of the '80s if Vitesse's You Win Again, Gravity! sounds like it was excerpted from the soundtrack to your adolescence. (Well, not your adolescence per se, but the one that overconsumption of that era's teen movies may have convinced you was yours.)
Vitesse are a two-man studio-only operation based out of Chicago comprised of vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Hewson Chen (also of Alsace Lorraine) and keyboardist/rhythm section Joshua Klein (formerly of two more rock-oriented bands, Aden and Toulouse). You Win Again, Gravity! is their fourth major release, following up on 1999's A Certain Hostility, 2000's Chelsea 27099, and 2001's EP What Cannot Be, But Is . . . . Vitesse's earlier recordings have pretty well established the band's dominant characteristics: an unabashed affection for early- to mid-1980s British synth-pop music à la OMD, a flair for creating solemn synthscapes full of understated but catchy keyboard hooks, and an emphasis on low, deadpan male vocals that some compare to those of similarly inclined songwriter Stephin Merritt. You Win Again, Gravity! continues on in pretty much the same vein, which could be taken as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.
From the opening instrumental track (titled, appropriately enough, "Instrumental") to the closing cover of Husker Du's "Green Eyes", the whole of You Win Again, Gravity! could easily have been lifted from the score for a teenage tearjerker from that Golden Age of American Cinema, 1982-1989 (though, just as with '80s soundtrack songs, overall tone and style is what matters most here, not the exact fit between the particular lyrics of the song and the situation). There's the "just overheard the popular girl making fun of you to her friends when you thought she liked you" song, "Hunch", and the "starting to realize that your best friend is actually your ideal love match" song, "Small Gift". There's the "full of bitterness over slights real and imagined" song, "Of All the Things You've Done Wrong", the "just plain moping because you're sixteen and it sucks" song, "Such Emotion", and the "slightly resolving to break out of your mope and show everybody at school that they're wrong" song, "It's Just Fine". And there's plenty of wistful, "what if things were different" tunes like "School of Thought", "What's Forgotten", and "Another Way".
Practically the only things missing are the joyful "let's get the team together and put our great plan in motion" song and the triumphant, "we did it!" number to play over the closing credits, and therein lies the reluctant qualm I have with this album, much as I enjoy it. For while the notes Vitesse strike on You Win Again, Gravity! are lovely and evocative ones, especially for those who love the genre to which they're paying homage, they're also the same notes over and over. There's very little variance in tempo or tone from track to track, the shadings almost imperceptible to the casual ear. At times You Win Again, Gravity! seems more a study in monochrome than an album in full living Technicolor. (In fact, the first time I listened to the album all the way through, the final track, the aforementioned "Green Eyes", which features a female lead vocal by Celeste Alexander, struck me as a shocking departure despite being musically and tonally almost identical to the rest of the album, having been so lulled into a trance-like state by the sameness of the vocal quality on the rest of the album.)
And so, while You Win Again, Gravity! may well turn out to be my soundtrack of choice for a rainy nostalgic Saturday afternoon for awhile, it will never achieve the status of a classic that I would bring out for any mood or occasion. I guess I'm just not quite enough of a child of the '80s.