Checking the Nirvana Index: Notes on the Continuing Search for an American Guitar Rock Savior

Pooneh Ghana

Popular music is inherently appropriative. Everything new is made, at least partially, from something borrowed. There’s no escaping this fact. Even something like the industrious specificity of Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey still requires a brief citation and explicit thank you note to Roy Orbison’s cigarette-lit loneliness. And it was Orbison’s own void that was buried somewhere deep in the cracks between the sunny and sedated early 50’s harmonies he’d come up trying to write. But to keep disentangling music history like this is to realize that it is essentially a history of artful, if not always tasteful or morally sound, appropriation. The new song is all the old songs with a different set memories.

Of course, this remains true for any form of art, but it seems far easier to chart all the borrowing and its meaning within the historical progression of American popular music. Or at least it’s more immediately recognizable, our nuance processing faster. We don’t need a doctoral examination to carefully interpret Chief Keef; we just need a remix.

This way of thinking extends to every niche of popular music, since niches themselves are, in this case, appropriations of often highly specific aspects of a larger whole, and right now is about the time each year where we wonder if one particular niche, guitar rock, has finally, unceremoniously reached its reinventive ceiling. The question of Is this the end? usually comes up after a string of promising albums fails to generate any type of unique and culturally titanic figure, or figures, who might allow the genre – which used to be known as “alternative”, but, these days, “guitar” is actually a more specific qualifier – to speak in the type of broadly incisive ways and to the type of broad and incisive audiences it once did. In the mid to late-90’s, this kind of yearly check-in was, or should have been, known as Checking the Nirvana Index. What’s worrying, then, is that in 2015, depending on how you feel about the Foo Fighters, the point of reference hasn’t changed much. We’re still looking for the next Nirvana.

Or, more expressly, we’re still looking for the next Nevermind.

At the moment, the best place to bear witness to the troubling and Messiah-less state of American guitar rock is probably on Desaparecidos’s new political-punk opus, Payola. As the band’s first LP in 13 years – they broke up in 2002 not long after putting out their debut, ReadMusic/SpeakSpanish, due to lead singer Connor Oberst’s commitment to one of his other, and far more successful, projects, Bright Eyes – it’s startlingly, thrillingly alive. It’s a record that has its own elevated pulse, one that’s meant to jolt you from some kind of prolonged sleep. The guitars are cleverly imagined as the stammering and restless souls of police sirens, and the sing-alongs come on like righteous tantrums. For the bulk of its running time, Payola is a record that treats rousing punk anthems like pop-shock therapy.

It’s easy to see, then, why a record like this might incite some savior speculation – it’s already meant to incite so many other things, so why shouldn’t it also receive the most obvious response? Most of this talk has to do with Oberst, who, to his credit, fronts the band with a kind of candid abandon he hasn’t shown since the existential performance art of his Bright Eyes track “At the Bottom of Everything”. From a certain distance, Payola does look like the record everyone’s been waiting for him to make, a kind of rented-garage rock atom bomb that might blow out all the emo-twee cobwebs that ended up turning people off in the first place. There’s a sense that Payola could lead to Oberst’s breakthrough as the type of definitive guitar rock voice his younger years hinted at. That might be something of a stretch, but it’s also impossible to ignore the considerable pleasures of hearing the guy who wrote “Coat Check Dream Song” sing about chaining himself to an ATM for something other than a girl. The trouble is that all the fun feels more like a novelty than anything else, one that lets you forget why Oberst ever chained himself to the ATM in the first place. It’s a blast, but it’s also only that.

It doesn’t help, then, that as a record, Payola is pretty much one big appropriation, of politics, of style, of outrage. While it’s true that this isn’t monumentally surprising coming from a group of white dudes from Nebraska who took their band name from Chilean activists and separatists that were forcefully disappeared in the 70’s and 80’s, the rate of cultural borrowing over these 14 songs, both intentional and unintentional, eventually, crucially, becomes unavoidably distracting, especially once you realize the context of the record’s reception, which has been, almost unanimously, a shrug, a punk rock exemption, and a congratulatory review. Were the record made by another band, one with less immediate visibility, this type of knee-jerk populist pardoning might be a little more understandable, but Desaparecidos aren’t shouting through a basement window anymore. They play on late night shows. They get interviewed by Grantland and the Huffington Post. These guys are being packaged as having something to say, so why are we so quick to forgive the clumsiness of how they’re saying it?

This is where Payola, at least for me, really breaks down as both a record and a career statement for Oberst. Back in 2002, the streamlined anarcho-punk that Desaparecidos were playing on ReadMusic/SpeakSpanish was believable; it still made sense. So much sense, actually, that bands like Against Me! (Laura Jane Grace shows up to sing backup on a Payola track) and Anti-Flag ended up beaming their rants through a Paul Westerberg prism and brought the subgenre to a fever pitch during Bush’s second term, the absurdity of their post-partisan howling still plausible in the face of a seemingly far less plausible administration. It’s this specific type of punk that Oberst and his bandmates are going for: the not-so-subtly joyous celebration of dissidence that conceptualizes the history of protests and riots in this country as a never-ending party. But in the wake of the incendiary and traumatically illuminating events that took place in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson and Charleston, this kind of songwriting comes off in a way that makes the record seem worse than tasteless. It’s anachronistic.

While Payola does represent a version of what Desaparecidos were playing back in 2002, it’s clear that even those rants would make more sense right now as a re-release. They could recall the absurdity of the Bush era without having to reckon with a decidedly less absurd future. What we have instead, though, is a more agile collection of the band’s own recycled materials that were made into something more amusing in their absence. It’s fun, but, again, it’s only that.

The biggest problem with this variety of protest music in 2015 is that it comes off, rightly, as overly privileged. Of course these guys would have fun at a riot; they have nothing to really lose. The problem with Connor Oberst writing this kind of protest music in 2015, however, is much more unsettling. He’s an assumed, and, to be fair, quite accomplished, authoritative poetic mind, so when he sings on the record’s first track, “Every bloody pacifist concedes the truth/If one must die to save the ninety-nine/Maybe it’s justified/The left is right/We’re doomed”, his casual invocation of a lifeless, politicized body should logically, currently, be taken as a perverse non-sequitur. Instead, it’s met with the closest drums and guitars can get to applause.

From there, Oberst’s writing only gets murkier. And as he starts to ventriloquize a few overt racists from Maricopa, Arizona without ever pondering his own race (“MariKKKopa”) or bemoan social media activism without wondering what kind of “involvement” his own music promotes (“Slacktivist”), the profundity of his failures as a possible guitar rock savior begins to weigh heavier than disappointment. It starts to feel more and more like irrelevance.

In an interview with Spin, Denver Dalley, the band’s guitarist, said that the majority of the writing on Payola came out of nightly conversations the group had around campfires during a retreat to Minnesota. When you take the songs in this context, the one that puts those same five white dudes from Omaha around a campfire in the middle of nowhere, floating political ideologies and trying to pair them to some crude riffs, the record actually gains a comforting insularity. You realize that their worst appropriation is just some other dude’s limited perspective. These guys never had plans to fight any power. They just wanted to plug in Kumbaya.

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The best song on Payola by a couple of miles is “Ralphy’s Cut”, a deeply personal and desperately affecting portrait of a friend of the band battling cystic fibrosis and a broken healthcare system. On it, the guitars still rage and the drums still approximate the sound a few million raised fists might make in a sandstorm, but it’s Oberst’s writing and escalating delivery that allows the righteous hurricane to find land. “We got to let it go, boys,” he sings near the end, his voice draining itself of life. “You know we’re all on hold/Till they call you back.” He’s talking here, specifically, about his friend waiting on a doctor’s call, but what he’s really tapping into are the realities of collective suffering. It’s a devastating set of lines, a reminder of the atomic potential Oberst still has as a songwriter, and it’s followed by one of the most cathartic moments on any record that’s come out this year. For the last 30 seconds of the song, from somewhere not as easily identifiable as wherever he was before, Oberst screams. Or at least that’s the best way to describe the sound he makes: it starts as a scream. Then it opens itself up and becomes something elemental, something foundational, the air you’re breathing, the 10% of you that isn’t water. It works so well because Oberst is willing to hold the moment just long enough for you to pick out every emotion he’s going for: the fear, the grief, the injustice, so that when the music finally cuts, the screaming has started to feel like something that’s coming from inside of you.

These are the types of moments, it seems, that guitar rock is still capable of offering, ones that displace you enough that you forget about the concept of history almost entirely, that remind you Nirvana can be more than a band name. One of the more consistent architects of these kinds of moments who also has a record out this year is Dylan Baldi. As the brains and bile behind the midwestern band Cloud Nothings, Baldi made a name for himself writing blunt and often elliptical hooks that he would repeat in his songs until they became their own branch of psychology. That band’s most recent two records, 2012’s cataclysmic Attack on Memory and 2014’s slender masterwork Here and Nowhere Else, successfully imagined a late 90’s where grunge never went stale and was instead assimilated as a base ingredient in the emo revolution. This year, Baldi decided to tether his transcendental lonerisms to the volatile surf rock of Nathan Williams’s Wavves for a collaborative LP that the two cut, allegedly, over the course of just a couple of weeks. The record, which has the very Baldian title No Life for Me, was released suddenly online a few weeks ago with its cover art doing most of the explaining.

As a collaboration between two of guitar rock’s most compulsively listenable songwriters, No Life For Me is pretty much a mess. Many of the songs seem to be made up of the spare parts of completely different wholes, with some tracks ending so suddenly that it seems like Baldi and Williams just gave up and moved on, and Williams takes the castoff nature of these kinds of projects at face value and shows up almost exclusively as the kind of droning fatalist he typically writes songs to get away from. A little bit of No Life for Me sounds like Nirvana if Dave Grohl was a drum machine. A lot of it sounds like apathetic Hüsker Dü. Practically none of it sounds like something you’ll still be listening to in a month or two.

What No Life for Me does have, though, are Dylan Baldi hooks, and that’s what keeps it relevant even a few weeks out. To hear the Cloud Nothings frontman take the brick of music he co-created and pull out inspired hooks is to understand the seriousness of his talent. It’s like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of another rabbit. It makes you realize that this is a guy who can find a hook in anything: a Fugazi homage, his own neuroses, that brick I mentioned earlier. Take, for example, what he does on the record’s title track. After a hammering guitar line and a typically sadsack and groan-y Wiliams verse, Baldi appears, parts the charcoal clouds, and sings, over and over again, “My Energy/My Energy is/I long to be here.” There’s absolutely no context for what he’s talking about. Williams hasn’t given him any, and neither has the record, but the more you listen to the song, the less specifics seem to matter.

This is the power of a Baldi hook: its opaqueness, over time, can develop an aloof sort of enlightenment. The best of them, like the one on No Life’s title track, or the one he conjured for Here and Nowhere Else’s jumper cable closer “I’m Not a Part of Me”, hint at something abstract, a feeling that isn’t always, simply, felt, but, instead, known, like the way we might say we know the heat of the sun. The hooks repeat themselves, easily and incessantly, until Baldi’s original subject has dissolved completely, and they becomes yours, each one meaning whatever you need it to mean. For me, there’s always been something vaguely religious about listening to Baldi’s music, like punk spirituals, and playing a song until it’s totally unfolded and flat. And when I get to that point, I can usually see what I think Baldi had been trying to write. His hooks are the vacant wildness of Midwestern highways.

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Other than Dylan Baldi, the most promising and newish guitar rock loyalist might also be the genre’s most immediately conventional. Alicia Bognanno, who fronts a band from Nashville called Bully and wears her hair in music videos like a bleached reflection of Kurt Cobain’s pep rally look, might’ve been better known before this year (see: last year) as a prodigious music engineering student who moonlit playing easygoing garage pop anthems with her friends. But after Feels Like, Bully’s first proper LP, which came out in June and built on a handful of the band’s debut EP tracks like a bonfire builds on kindling, Bognanno’s profile has markedly, necessarily, shifted to something far more ecstatic: Blogs are beginning to whisper. The word “Nevermind” is showing up in reviews.

These Nirvana comparisons are inevitable and inescapable, even if they’re not entirely helpful. Feels Like was recorded – and produced, by Bognanno herself – at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, an explicit monument to an era of recording that bred more than a few Neverminds. The fact that Bognanno was an intern at Electrical Audio, too, before getting the chance to record there, only adds to the notion that she might be too much a student of the genre to ever do what’s necessary to extend its relevance. This is a theory made even more persuasive when you hear something like “Picture” or “Reason”, a couple of tracks from Feels Like that could’ve been piped into the studio from an Albini session circa 1993, and wonder, briefly, whether or not Bognanno knows that she’s singing karaoke.

But all of that thinking is, frankly, bullshit, because there isn’t a songwriter in any genre right now who is more aware of their stylistic appropriation, and its place in their own music, than Bognanno. To overlook this is to ignore something as bracingly lethal as “I Remember”, the track that opens Bully’s debut LP like a cloud of arrows raining from a dimming sky. “I remember,” Bognanno screams, her voice the sound of gravity, “I remember that box of letters/I remember that naked photo/And I remember things getting better.” Just about every line in the song is this mundane, but that mundanity is the whole point. It ups the degree of difficulty so Bognanno can show off her vocal fitness level. For her, “I Remember” might as well be a songwriting exercise, the backing track its resistance setting. How do you write something from the perspective of a rancorous ex without hurling a single insult? Easy, just make the arrows out of memories.

There’s actually a great video of Bognanno recording the vocals for “I Remember” that Bully posted on their Vevo Channel a little over a month before Feels Like’s release date, and it seems relevant to talk about those two minutes and 11 seconds here for a couple of reasons. The first is that their running time represents one of the most vivid depictions of someone sharpening the English language into a viable inventory of Homeric weaponry that you’ll find streaming, legally, on the Internet for free. The second has to do with the way Bognanno, after getting someone in the booth named John’s attention to start the music, puts her head down, calmly finds the switch inside of herself that has to be flipped to “On”, and then casually re-locates the audio-capturing device in front of her that I’m assuming is labeled “Fireproof”. If you haven’t watched the video yet, go watch it. It might make you think about Jules Winfield telling John Travolta, “Come on, let’s get into character.” It also might make you think of the rest of Jules Winfield’s lines in that movie. But what it’ll definitely get you thinking about is what’s next, for the song, for the record, for Bognonno.

Some of those answers are already clear. “I Remember” ends with the kind of searing impact – actualized, here, by what Bognonno does to the word “Everything” – its starting gate recklessness promised, and Feels Like never quite recovers from it. The rest of the record is spent, at least in part, moving on. Not just from that one relationship, but from everything, the oddly compelling childhood trauma (“Six”), the unused college degrees (“Trying”), the brainfreeze (“Brainfreeze”). The one thing Feels Like never moves on from, though, is the garage, and over the course of the record, the light scuzz and crunch of its comprehensively borrowed sound becomes something remarkably unfamiliar; it becomes pedestrian, the sound of a reel of film flitting along, capturing whatever’s going on in front of it.

And what’s going on in front of it is Bognonno, a songwriter who earnestly refers to both Patti Smith and Paul Westerberg in interviews as her favorite poets. For her, all the noise she’s screaming over doesn’t have to stand in, as it has for the better part of two decades, for some kind of existential danger in the world. It can just be the world, all of it, the danger and the shelter, the backseat and the high school parking lot. For a good bit of Feels Like, this is exactly what Bognonno is able to do. She drags guitar rock from its self-imposed brooder phase and makes it approachable again, comforting, even. And this gives her serrated writing something to cut into, a status quo that can still believably get fucked up. Something like the first verse of “Trying” (“I question everything/My focus, my figure, my sexuality/And how much it matters or why it would mean anything”) winds up working so well in her hands because you get the idea that it’s her own music that’s trying to marginalize her as she sings it. To write songs this way is to understand how extensively guitar rock has been internalized into American popular culture and to embrace the genre’s relative dullness anyway as something worth salvaging, even if it’s as a patriarchal stand-in. This might make Bognonno something more indispensible in 2015 than a savior: a revisionist. The new song, perhaps, is all the old songs with a different conception of history.

(Photo credit: Pooneh Ghana)

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