“The idea of chucking it all seems so inviting. To throw myself headlong into a love affair with some beautiful unknown person or a trip off alone in the wilds, never looking back. But I can’t help myself, I must always look back. Life’s so beautiful in the rear view, everything in gold and white and very still – faces and places, feelings, thoughts, embalmed forever.” (Lee Ranaldo, ‘Notebook’, on Amarillo Ramp (For Robert Smithson) )
Lee Ranaldo does nostalgia like no other. Somehow, he manages to cut through the inflated cliché that dominates most songwriting about the past. Most songwriters’ attempts at conveying memories come out too sugar-sweet, suspiciously over-romanticised and so only half capable of expressing the complexity of real-life reminiscing. Take Thin Lizzy’s ‘Parisienne Walkways’. I love it, but every bent note and neat cadence drips with twee predictability. You can almost imagine Phil Lynott’s doe eyes gazing off into some green-screen night sky. If you surrender to it, it has its own charm, but it’s so resolutely generic that I don’t think it can highlight anything new about loss or past happiness or how we experience emotions in retrospect. It’s almost a parody of feeling.
For me, Lee Ranaldo manages a much more thorough rendering of nostalgia, and as a morbidly nostalgic person, I welcome the clarity that his music helps me achieve. A good example of this is the first track on which I ever heard Lee’s voice, The Cribs’ ‘Be Safe’. Ten years on, it’s still one of my favourite songs. From beginning to end, Lee’s monologue is poetry, capturing perfectly the impulse that drives us into the past for comfort as well as the way memories flood in to give sense and meaning to life. Lee moves from a focus on the present – “one of those fucking awful black days when nothing is pleasing and everything that happens is an excuse for anger” – to a grasping attempt to find comfort in the past, to escape life’s “petty concerns” by wallowing in memories.
“Let’s take life and slow it down incredibly slow,
Frame by frame,
With two minutes that take ten years to live out.
Yeah, let’s do that.” (The Cribs, ‘Be Safe’, on Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever )
‘Be Safe’ is a song about finding yourself in a psychological place where the only way out is backwards, through time – which is, the chorus implies, also “a place […] where you’ll fall in love so hard you’ll wish you were dead”. The link between reflecting on the past and creating narratives in the present is clear here, and I think it’s the core of why I love the song so much: it recognises that it’s in the intense silences when there’s “nothing good on the radio, not a thought in my head” that I start to try and fill my life with meaning, generate stories to give me a sense of self and purpose.
‘Be Safe’ is dense with remembered images, “flashing glimpses and gone again”, though the listener is left to weave these into a story themselves. Listening to’Be Safe’ is like being plunged into someone else’s overthink. And yet it’s inevitably also your own, because you’re free to add your own frames to the “movie, unreeling, about to begin”. The thinking subject in the song is the singer whose “ideas swirl but don’t stick; they appear but then run off like rain on the windshield” – and that’s you, listening to the song, allowing yourself to inhabit that same contemplative mood. As the song reaches its climax, Lee demands: “stay the course; hold the wheel; steer on to freedom. Open all the boxes. Open all the boxes.” What’s the freedom you achieve at the end of the song, the end of the ride? Where’s the promised catharsis? Is memory itself the freedom, an escape from the duties of the present? Or is it only in opening the boxes that you can rid yourself of the need to remember, narrativise in order to file things neatly in the past for another day?
Okay, it’s hardly the cheeriest of songs. But nostalgia is hardly the cheeriest of emotions. Lee Ranaldo is one of the only musicians I know who manages, musically and lyrically, to get to the heart of what I think nostalgia really is: morbid, unconstructive, and yet endlessly compelling. Lee’s best nostalgic tracks are those with the darkest musical elements, which balance the attraction of reminiscing (usually in the lyrics and the nursery-rhyme vocal melodies) with the tension it creates in your present self (usually captured in the distorted guitars, heavy bass and minor chords). A perfect example is ‘Wish Fulfilment’ (Sonic Youth, on Dirty ), which is like the older, wiser sibling of ‘Parisienne Walkways’ – it has the same gentle arpeggios and sugary opening vocals, but they’re offset by screeching guitars, grunge power chords and shotgun drums. There’s a filmic fantasy of life, played out on the projector-screen of memory, and then there’s the senseless white noise of reality waiting ahead of you as you gaze back over your shoulder. “Your life and my life, they don’t touch at all, and that’s no way to be. We’ve never seemed so far. […] It’s such a mess now anyway.”
Another example is ‘Xtina As I Knew Her’ on Between the Times and the Tides (2012), one of Lee’s solo tracks. On ‘Xtina’, he describes his memories of Christina “drifting in and out of time” over mournful guitars and near-monotone vocals that endow the track with the tense, conflicted mood I love in Lee’s music. I have a live version where he explains that it’s about his teenage friendship group, and how unsettled he was when he went back home and found his friends living exactly the same drug-fuelled lifestyle that they’d had when he left for college 10 years before. Though he’s definitely fond of his memories with them, he recognises that life has to change; that attempts to relive the past are signs you’re not moving forward. Perhaps this is the “memory disease” he mentions in ‘Paper Cup Exit’ – clamouring to turn back time, which is understandable but, in the end, fruitless.
I happened across a rarity recently that shed some light on Lee’s philosophy of memory – the track ‘Notebook’ on Amarillo Ramp (For Robert Smithson) (1997). On it, Lee laments the material things he’s accrued and “all these stupid metaphors” which get in the way of living life happily. He seeks escape in the future but can’t help looking back at life, which is “so beautiful in the rear-view”. At this point in the song, he proves his point: he gets bogged down in names and images, similar to the images in ‘Be Safe’. And then he reflects:
“My life in a frozen moment, a fly’s eye faceted view of all the moments which make up the full strand. Do any of these moments mean even the slightest thing? […] How much easier if the past were a black hole, if we had amnesia. […] How many of my memories are created or reinforced by the documentation of them?” (Lee Ranaldo, ‘Notebook’, on Amarillo Ramp (For Robert Smithson) )
It’s in that question – “do any of these moments mean even the slightest thing?” – and its echo years later on ‘Be Safe’ – “so much land travelled, so little sense made of it; it doesn’t mean a thing, all this land laid out behind us” – that we get to the heart (and self-generating disappointment) of nostalgia. It arises from a recognition of life’s essential meaninglessness, and triggers a search for meaning amongst all the images you’ve ‘collected’ over time. And yet, in memory’s comforting rosiness and the distortion of the past that you know it represents, it reminds you that really, “it doesn’t mean a thing, all this land laid out behind us”. The present is white noise that only syrupy vocals can make palatable.