By Amrit Rai
The first time I watched High Fidelity, I was most struck by the scene where, in the midst of a breakdown, protagonist Rob Gordon re-organises his record collection. Not alphabetically, not chronologically, but autobiographically. Throughout the film, he often retreats to music to help him better cope with reality. The rearrangement of his record collection was a physical manifestation of the way he navigates his life and human interactions through the lens of the music he loves, and how it makes him feel.
On a recent re-watch, I started thinking about albums that are linked in my mind due to the autobiographical context in which I first experienced them. Significant among those were Cloud Nothings and Japandroids’ sophomore offerings Attack On Memory and Celebration Rock. I heard both in my final semester of university; they gave two very different insights of how to look back on youth from an as yet uncertain future.
One of the best feelings you experience at university is in the few seconds immediately after you submit your dissertation. It’s a combination of relief, pride, and delirium from lack of sleep after one final all-nighter. The hard work has paid off and you’re done with uni. For me, this feeling of triumph was soon replaced by a sense of uncertainty over what would happen next. None of my older friends with similar interests and academic background had followed any sort of blueprint, and had landed in a myriad of jobs with varying degrees of contentment. I couldn’t see an identifiable, tangible ‘plan’ that I could spend the first five years of my twenties trying to get with. For the next few months, that one line of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘All My Friends’ would always throw me into a spiral of introspection regarding what might come next.
In life, the lows make the highs and the highs make the lows. Celebrations are set in the context of the heartbreaks that have been overcome. This is why the juxtaposition of the technicolour-tinged reverence and life-affirming joy of Celebration Rock, standing in stark contrast to the greyscale and perpetual frustration expressed on Attack On Memory, feels so fitting for a time in your life governed by great uncertainty about the future.
You don’t fully understand cold and darkness without having first experienced warmth and light, and Attack On Memory is the sound of someone trying to come to terms with the new cold, dark reality of their early-to-mid twenties. Someone who has compromised their ideals and spent “the first five years trying to get with the plan”, despite not fully understanding what the plan is, or whether this paint-by-numbers path is a suitable one for them to follow. After a series of compromises, they’ve found themselves a million miles away from where they want to be and they’re unsatisfied. The blunt and corrosive lyrics on ‘Wasted Days’ express frustration at post-teenage stagnation and letting life pass you by, but also convey a sense of defeated resignation that this harsh new reality is the way it’s going to be forever. Dylan Baldi screaming “I thought I would be more than this” over a barrage of crashing drums and abrasive guitars has both haunting and ominous qualities.
Attack On Memory made me wonder if this was what the future had in store. Shelve your dreams, take any job that’ll have you just to cover rent and put food on the table, while the day-to-day chips away at you until you have to re-frame your past and sour the memories to better come to terms with your present. Was this it for me, my friends, my whole generation? Even if that was true of the day-to-day and week-to-week, there had to be another way to cope with the new reality of life in your twenties than by tarnishing the memories of the good times of your youth. Could it be possible to retreat into these cherished memories and continue to derive happiness from them years later? Japandroids seem to think so.
Where Attack On Memory launches an assault on the past to help better come to terms with the present, Celebration Rock – true to its name – celebrates it and fills you with hope that things will get better in the future.
When Japandroids take a nostalgic look back on the past on ‘Younger Us’, it isn’t a requiem for lost youth. They’re raising a glass to the fearless feeling of indestructability – the nights sat up drinking, and the camaraderie that came with it – and do so in a way that offers renewed hope for the future. Japandroids make a compelling argument against Tony Soprano’s famous assertion that ‘Remember When?’ is the lowest form of conversation. ‘Younger Us’ makes you realise it’s fine to look back fondly on the times sat up in your mate’s kitchen watching the sun rise and to still hold those memories dear. You may not see your friends as often as you used to, or would like to, now you’ve got jobs and responsibilities, but you will see them again. And you’ll spend time reflecting on the past together while raising a glass to the future. I’m reminded of that every time ‘Younger Us’ comes on shuffle on my morning commute or drive home.
The first time I watched High Fidelity, the main thing I took from it was the protagonist’s retreat into music to help him better cope with reality. On subsequent re-watches over the last ten years, I took more from it and viewed certain things differently. My sympathies with certain characters realigned as I grew to appreciate the shades of grey. Similarly with music, sometimes you don’t absorb everything record has to offer the first time you listen to it. You take away what resonates most at the time.
When you cut through the shimmering resplendence of Celebration Rock and the melancholia and angst of Attack On Memory, you begin to notice the layered subtleties and how neither album is necessarily binary – and as such are both more truly reflective of life itself. When I first found solace in these records, I didn’t immediately pick up on the full depth of them, because I chose to subscribe to the core message to help me through a significant time in my life. I may not have been looking for what else the records had to offer, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was always there.
“No nostalgia, no sentiment / we’re over it now and we were over it then” is the one lyric that’s representative of the whole Cloud Nothings album. However, the irony in this attack on nostalgia is that the overall tone of the album, underpinned by Steve Albini’s production, is very much a throwback to the past. The production elevates what is at times a lyrically dense album with raw complementary instrumentation, as Albini has done in the past for Pixies, PJ Harvey, Nirvana, and Jawbreaker.
Despite the consistently bleak lyrical themes, Cloud Nothings sugarcoat their words with instrumentation and melodies. The offbeat harmonies on ‘Fall In’ offset against a yearning to be like a friend who is more at ease with their life situation. The jangly guitars on the catchy ‘Stay Useless’ are at odds with the petulant lyrics. The overridingly anthemic melodies on album closer ‘Cut You’ coddle the self-loathing and abusive lyrics. The construction of these tracks shows you can find beauty amongst bleakness if you look hard enough, and in the right places.
Rather than setting their lyrics at odds with their instrumentation, Japandroids generate this contrast within the lyricism itself. They call upon traditional evocative contrasting themes – good and evil, heaven and hell, young and old, life and death, flesh and bone – giving the album a more palpable and relatable feel than the sometimes dreamy haze of debut Post-Nothing.
In an interview with Pitchfork, guitarist and frontman Brian King said this was to demonstrate “the extreme boundaries of how people can feel and how fast things can change”. While the album is generally full of unabashed positivity, Japandroids don’t turn a blind eye to darker emotions. ‘The House That Heaven Built’ has a deep undercurrent of melancholia, within a tender love story about a special relationship that has run its course and burned out. “It’s a lifeless life, with no fixed address to give / but you’re not mine to die for anymore, so I must live” is as profound as anything written by Paul Westerburg or Springsteen.
At times, when struggling with the challenges of day-to-day life, you sometimes wonder if it’s ever going to get better. And sometimes when things are going well, you may feel invincible and like everything can stay like this forever. But nothing is going to either be perpetually bleak or burn bright forever. Nothing is permanent. Everything is temporary. There is dark and light, cold and warmth, joy and sorrow. The experience of one extreme makes you better appreciate the other and also grow to find comfort in everything that falls inbetween.
‘The Nights Of Wine And Roses’, ‘Adrenaline Nightshift’, and ‘Fires Highway’ tell tales of simultaneously living in the moment and celebrating the past. Normal human emotions and interactions are embellished and described in transcendental ways. Everything burns twice as bright for half as long, like ‘a Blitzkrieg love’ or ‘a Roman Candle kiss’. But rather than worry about dying, Japandroids use this album to celebrate being alive and lighting a generation’s bonfire. This tells you to celebrate the highs as much as you can, as often as you can, as they may only be punctuation marks in a lifeless life, with no fixed address to give.
I’m glad I found these records when I did and that they were able to help me navigate my way through a stage of life governed by great uncertainty. Like the protagonist in High Fidelity, the music I listened to during this trying time resonated with my own situation. But where Rob felt that all the songs he heard about relationships or love or heartbreak were specifically telling his story with spooky resonance, the records I was listening to weren’t necessarily definitively telling my story, as it was still in the process of being written. These records were a place of reference, not residence. I could retreat into them to help me better make sense of my own unfolding reality, before returning to the real world and working on writing my next chapter as I wanted it to be.