The Kids Are Alright: ‘Teenage,’ Bradford Cox, and Youth Culture
“Teenagers didn’t always exist. They had to be invented.” That’s the thesis statement for Matt Wolf’s documentary Teenage, a film that explores the rise of youth culture in the 20th century. A perfect storm of social, cultural, and economic upheaval created this new phenomenon, caught between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. Wolf adapts Jon Savage’s book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture in a unique way, using a mix of archival footage and modern 16mm recreations. There are no talking heads; instead, narrators read accounts written by teenagers all across the first half of the 20th century. The result is something equally diaristic and dreamlike—to see these teenagers thrown against the modern world of war, famine, and disillusion is heart-wrenching.
What’s especially striking is how similar teens seem across the ages. There they are, primping in the mirror, telling dirty jokes, sneaking joints—only their fashion has changed. They’re escaping childhood and tentatively tip-toeing into adulthood, which were my exact same concerns at that age. The aimlessness, interspersed with feverish bouts of rebellion, is all too familiar, and Wolf lets it unfold fluidly. Boredom is punctuated by the incredible desolation of a cruel world. The most striking section shows barely pubescent Nazi boys captured in the waning days of World War II. Some scowl and puff their chests; most tremble and cry.
I was initially drawn to the film because of the soundtrack’s composer. With both Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox seems uniquely tied into a certain teenage kind of feeling. His songs are noisy but beautiful, drawing grace from darkness. In interviews, Cox has talked candidly about his own youth, which were marked by isolation due to his sexual preference and symptoms from Marfan syndrome. Early on, he gravitated towards Edward Scissorhands, becoming obsessed with both the titular character and Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. “I became really interested in the way melodies can be so heartbreaking or nostalgic or melancholy,” he says. Cox brings this experience to Teenage, crafting hypnotic instrumentals that buzz with sadness and beauty. Each song is a mini record collection, at times recalling the motorik groove of Neu! or Kraftwerk, the electronic ambience of Brian Eno, the pained simplicity of the Shangri-Las. It’s teenage music, warped by time and memory.
Teenage seems especially powerful given the countless think pieces bemoaning Millenials. Every generation thinks they’re the last, but this film easily refutes that assumption. Youth culture can be alien and exasperating, but there’s heart and substance underneath. The kids are alright—let them find their own way.
Tony Molina // Dissed And Dismissed
Slumberland Records warns, “please note that this album runs just under 12 minutes. Just so you know.” The longest song is an epic 92 seconds; each power-pop blast gives you a hook and a shredding guitar solo before moving on to the next one. Tony Molina is a San Francisco music veteran who’s moved between both hardcore punk and pop. Dissed And Dismissed feels like he’s boiled those two sides together in a unique way, borrowing Thin Lizzy’s harmonized leads, Weezer’s wall-of-fuzz, and Guided By Voices’ sweet-but-sad melodies. There’s even a GBV cover buried way in the back of the record—wait nine minutes and you’ll get there.
The War On Drugs // Lost In The Dream
Kurt Vile and the War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel spent years playing in each others’ bands, slowly building artistic signatures that seem brotherly in their similarity to one another. Both transform heartland rock into widescreen fever dreams, loading up on guitar effects and open-ended jams. They both like to muddy their influences: FM pop riding the melodic high, ambient freakouts bubbling underneath.
The War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient upped the game considerably, a full-on album that gazes dreamily at ramblin’, stumblin’, slidin’ American lives. Whereas Vile has trunk-loads of songs at his disposal, Granduciel spent nearly four years crafting Slave Ambient from an analog trash heap, stitching all the songs together with synth washes and blasted drum loops. Vile hit his mark last year with the fantastic Wakin On A Pretty Daze, an inward record that takes comfort in both domestic bliss and the life of a working musician.
And now Granduciel, too, has turned inward. Reportedly, Lost In The Dream was just as exhaustingly crafted as Slave Ambient—Granduciel has revealed that he suffered from a mental breakdown after personal problems, and he worked endlessly to finish the record. He’s a tinkerer, as obsessed with the infinite permutations of a guitar lick as with the songwriting itself. Not surprisingly, LITD is perfectly recorded, full of rich tones and a sonic heaviness that’s miles from previous War On Drugs releases. This is an album that sounds great on headphones, but it’s best served at high volume through a decent pair of speakers, especially if those speakers are zooming down the highway.
Rock history is littered with audiophile geniuses that have nothing to say. Granduciel has everything to say, turning LITD into a beautifully open-hearted statement of purpose. He once sang in a Dylan-esque sneer, but here his voice is clear and full, wringing a calm sadness that sits alongside the general ennui that clouds War On Drugs’ discography. The tiny details add up: his soulful, heartbreaking higher register on “Suffering;” the understated “I’m a bit run down here at the moment” on “Eyes To The Wind;” the harmony vocals that push “Burning” over the edge; the utter, sincere joy captured by a “whoo!” and a drumroll a minute and forty-eight seconds into “Red Eyes.”
With a few exceptions, Granduciel essentially keeps re-writing the same two-chord song over and over again, but the formula hardly wears thin. He’s bearing down on infinity; eyes are set to the wind, horizons are scanned, there’s an ocean in between the waves. The songs all slowly burn, coming into focus before receding into the mist again. Just when you think a guitar-based band couldn’t find a new way forward, the War On Drugs turn the six-string into a bucket of Technicolor paint. Granduciel’s solo on “Suffering” is raw and perfectly imperfect, coughing through a Leslie speaker and matching the melancholic tone note-for-note. Granduciel is the ringleader—other band members laid down their tracks as overdubs over his demos—yet LITD breathes with life, sounding both meticulously crafted and freeform at the same time. Synthesizers coat the record front to back, but saxophone and pedal steel peek through the haze. It’s the most organic synthetic record you’ll probably ever hear this side of Brian Eno.
LITD is Americana that’s half-remembered, stuck somewhere between the halcyon past and a much grayer future. It’s Granduciel’s big question mark—he’s admitted his headspace is stuck between the endless touring of his younger days and future responsibilities, like settling down and starting a family. In every murky corner, self-doubt creeps up, haunting the edges like that solitary, vaguely creepy album cover. Yet somehow Granduciel sounds strangely at peace. All the hours and frayed nerves, washed away under an ocean of sound.
Angel Olsen // Burn Your Fire For No Witness
"The Leap:" an artist jumps from being just interesting to essential. Angel Olsen has made the leap. Burn Your Fire For No Witness demands to be heard on its own terms. Her unflagging intensity renders the record hot to the touch; even the seven-minute solo dirge “White Heat” (fitting name) is hypnotic and singular.
With Olsen backed up by a muscular band, she’s given a sturdy foundation to play with dynamics. “Hi-Five” and “Lights Out” bob and weave around soft and loud passages, building their power through repetition and subtle instrumental interplay. Olsen’s voice is the best instrument on display, capable of sounding alternately wounded or feral. On “Stars,” she focuses her withering gaze outward: “I think you like to see me lose my mind.” The chorus hits even harder, with Olsen wishing she had “the voice of everything / To scream the animals, to scream the earth / To scream the stars out of the universe.” It’s powerful, and yet utterly powerless.
I recently interviewed Olsen for my radio gig, and she told me that the Clean was a big touchstone when making the record, which makes sense. The New Zealand band carved out their own warped-pop sound with simple, do-it-yourself ingredients, and Olsen thrillingly follows that example. Her boldness is exciting and intoxicating; bigger things may come, but for now, we’re left with an instant-classic.
Sun Kil Moon // Benji
The repeated trash fires. The KFC dinner at an uncle’s funeral. Jimmy Page standing tall with his Les Paul, but finding love in "The Rain Song." Finding love (and lust) in Animals and old boxing matches on TV. The pettiness of an old friendship gone frosty; thinking about it while surrounded by sports bar shit. A simple mental prayer for Newtown. The simplicity of “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love.” Playing Scrabble to the chimes of the grandfather clock. Time marching forward and backward and sideways. A constellation of emotion in four words: "I love my dad." The fact that that phrase is surrounded by the cheesiest backup singers this side of your local Steely Dan cover band, bopping along like the Platonic ideal of “dad rock”—and one more shot at Nels Cline.
All these details add up to a masterpiece.