Sunset Rubdown: “Silver Moons”
My previous post on Arcade Fire attracted a considerable audience as well as a number of comments of varying amounts of intelligence. A couple of the comments noted that Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is at least honest, I point I would never dispute. It is also rather revealing, almost confessional, admitting to its own shortcomings. For me, that layer of self-deprecation was only reflective of a narrow-minded view of music history and a lack of imagination and ambition.
Luckily, though, I am not returning to you to rehash old posts, nor to dwell on the negative. This time my tigerly gaze meets that of Spencer Krug, who is almost indisputably the most brilliant individual songwriter and singer to emerge from the Montréal indie rock scene in the last decade (Godspeed You! Black Emperor wins gold for best collective, since their members are all virtually anonymous on the records). Because I am fond of bold, even hyperbolic claims, let me stick this one in the ground and stand by it: Sunset Rubdown’s “Silver Moons” is the only indie rock song you ever need to hear.
Defining the boundaries of “indie” music is of course impossible. The term is less well-defined than which countries belong in the Middle East, but tigers have to make compromises. Such a thing as indie rock exists, and it must have some defining features. To me, contemporary indie rock originated in the collapse of grunge and alternative rock as commercial forces in the mainstream. There is a rich and oft-cited catalogue of imagery associated with indie rock–bearded men, “hipsters” in ironic attire, cheap beer, cigarettes, and awkward dancing are only a selection–but truth be told there aren’t any icons suitable to represent the entire scene. That scene has always been more of a group with shared sensibilities and reading outlets than a genre. However, I think it is safe to say that indie rock has, since the collapse of grunge, been defined by acts of gazing backward and mourning loss.
This is not to say that every single indie rock song exemplifies this, but these two acts tend to describe most of the moderately popular rock music that I’ve heard for the last decade or so. Indie rock is primarily about memory, about tensions and oppositions that erupt from the passage of time. So here you have MGMT singing about missing “the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world,” the National observing that the lead singer has fallen in love with “everyone I grew up with,” the melancholy past tense of most Beirut songs, the primitivism of Animal Collective, everything about Bon Iver, Arcade Fire’s rumination on Funerals and Reflektions, The White Stripes’ minimalism, the general obsession with the 1980s and 90s, LCD Soundsystem eulogizing a rougher New York City, much of Sufjan Stevens’ three folk albums, Vampire Weekend’s fetishization of college life on its first album, etc. etc. etc.
One could cite numerous counterexamples, but I believe I have covered the most visible and best-known artists in that list. All of these artists tend to be backward-looking both stylistically and lyrically, and though there is a more technologically innovative segment of the indie rock scene, it tends to be dwarfed by that segment that sticks to acoustic instrumentation and avoids technologies like drum machines or sampling (those who do use those tend to use them in a self-consciously nostalgic or ironic way. Or, like Animal Collective, use them so that they sound totally organic and “natural”). Sunset Rubdown does not escape from this scheme. It is profoundly obsessed with the past and with death, with succession, transition, and a sense of loss. Its lyrics are palpably mournful, its parties a distant memory, and all of its inhabitants mere ghosts, Hungry for a more lively time. And for the narrator, there is nothing other than to memorize, to pass on the secrets and fade into the night. He implores us to say:
Maybe these days are over, over now
Maybe these days are over, over now
And I loved it better than anyone else you know
And I believe in growing old with grace
I believe she only loved my face
I believe I acted like a child
Making faces at acquired tastes
And now silver moons belong to you
This song succeeds on the expressive strength of Krug’s imitable voice, its evocative words that flow naturally alongside the song’s shifting rhythms. Moreover, the song keeps itself open-ended, drawn toward the light of the moons, hope in the new generation. This is the constructive role of memory: not a bitter cataloguing of wrongs and sinners but a seeking after truth that has gone before. It is not just an example of the indie rock template, it is the definitive word on the entire scene. The word of the entire scene, which is nothing if not a group of nervous and rapidly aging college graduates attempting to reckon with real responsibility. If most indie rock stops at trying to freeze time in place and mourn or make wry remarks about “these days,” this song takes the next necessary step, acknowledging not only ancestors but progeny or successors. In recognizing a future, albeit not one that we can own, it gives the respect due to both death and the continuation of life afterward. This is the only indie rock song we need right now.