Golden Valley is Now, is a beguiling album of intricate, nuanced, melancholic pop songs performed by three master improvisers, and featuring almost no identifiable improvisations whatsoever. It is strange, in a way, that three musicians who built careers on improvised music would collaborate on an album where listeners may have trouble locating any improvised elements at all. But more than the form these songs take, the album’s bewitching appeal also emerges through the way they sound: overall sonic quality of this record emerges from Craig Taborn’s synthesizers, which cast the entire album in a hazy, 1980s dreamworld. Released in September of 2019, this album is one in a series of pop culture productions from the past decade that explicitly revives 1980s aesthetic markers, using them to comment on our current cultural moment.
Two of the members of this band, Reid Anderson and Dave King, rose to prominence in the improvised music world through their work with The Bad Plus, a pioneering trio that has continued a relentless touring and recording schedule since their debut in 2001. This band advanced many arguments in the world of improvised music that almost no one else was making at the time. Among these, one of their key claims was that jazz should return to its “roots,” not in the neoclassical sense of Wynton Marsalis, but in the spirit of an art form that stemmed, fundamentally, from the popular music of its time. In this light, covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Heart of Glass,” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” can be seen as an extension of the logic that saw Coltrane rework “My Favorite Things,” or any number of jazz artists compose over the chord changes for “I’ve Got Rhythm” (e.g. “Oleo”). This particular argument was most forcefully articulated through The Bad Plus’s 2008 album For all I Care, an entire album of covers on which the band was joined by vocalist Wendy Lewis.
Although Golden Valley is Now proceeds from this initial insight, it also expands on it by engaging pop music in a different way: instead of covering songs (adapting them into new contexts) or using pop sensibilities to compose what are, at the end of the day, not pop songs (most of The Bad Plus’s original compositions fall into this category), the compositions on Golden Valley are, fundamentally, songs — that is, they are formally structured as pop songs, rather than as adaptable frames for improvisation.
In my view, this is the first significant characteristic of Golden Valley, not only because it is something of a departure for mainstream improvised music, but also because of what it (perhaps unintentionally) accomplishes: in entering into the pop-song landscape, Golden Valley also enters into a broader conversation about what America’s popular culture is telling us about ourselves in this moment. The point is not that one has to play pop music in order to comment on our culture but rather that doing so is, for a group of improvising musicians, a commentary against a certain strain of thinking in jazz that seeks to elevate and isolate it above or outside of popular music, and by extension, from any of the social issues on which popular music bears.
This cultural commentary has everything to do with the sounds of Taborn’s synthesizers. From the opening note of the first track, we are immersed in a sonic space that is instantly recognizable as one associated with the 1980s. At this moment, while listeners may be thrown backwards in time, we might also hear the opening to Stranger Things, a contemporary show that makes comprehensive use of media (sounds, images, objects, et al.) to create a sense of place, space, and significantly, time. And make no mistake: this album is about time, in one way or another.
The question then becomes: What are these sonic signifiers of a previous decade doing turning up in our contemporary moment (and in so many contexts)? The trite (if accurate) claim that fashion works in cycles is not enough to explain the myriad forms of cultural work that 1980s aesthetics have been resuscitated to perform. And as this article points out, such work has continued now for the better part of a decade. This essay is not the place to address the question in full, not least because different artists/shows/movies deploy nostalgic forms in different ways. In every case, what is true is (paraphrasing Fredric Jameson) that nostalgia is never a transparent representation of an earlier time, but is rather a projection of our current viewpoints onto the past. More to the point, we might say that artists revive nostalgic affects not (only) to create attachment and longing but also to comment on, use, or deploy selective elements of the past while leaving behind others.
The first use of nostalgia that we are clued into on this album is a more “classical” one, which is to say that it looks back fondly, deploying sounds from the past as a way of celebrating long friendships. For instance, the opening line of the album description references the “start of this intimate fellowship” which is “also a narrative showing the invaluable role of friendship in music” and “is dated 1982.” We get a sense of this aspect of 1980s nostalgia from track titles evoking childhood, play, and memory: “Sparklers and Snakes,” or “You might Live Here,” each connoting suburban childhoods in different ways (all three musicians are from the Minneapolis area). Moreover, the precise musical interplay evinced throughout the album, in which detailed, complex polyrhythms are formed as aggregates of each musician’s parts, indeed attests to a shared language, a musical and personal intimacy born from longtime friendship.
The invocation of earlier, perhaps more “innocent” times, is in a sense, the general use of most nostalgic sounds: they appeal to younger years, perhaps when our feelings felt more urgent, or when they had more outlets for expression, as when we called our friends after school to talk for hours. This, generally speaking, is what I read as the use of 1980s sounds in the work of another artist who uses sounds from this time, Carly Rae Jepsen: for those who grew up then, such sonic markers are immediately attached to the heightened feelings of adolescence. In reworking 1980s sounds into pop music for our own times, Jepsen sings the belief that there is still a place for such deep feelings in our current lives — that our emotions can still be that earnest, straightforward, that important.
But in contrast to such romantic iterations, the use of 1980s nostalgia that I hear on Golden Valley is most primarily of a different kind. While there is a degree of wistful nostalgia here, there is also another, co-existing use of the 1980s aesthetic that is evoked, which I read as more prominent, and which we might first sense in the icy glass building pictured on the album cover. This building can signal any office building (perhaps the “City Diamond” referenced in the first track), or it might, in its oblique invocation of the Bonaventure Hotel, place us squarely inside of the idea of postmodernism, considered as both an aesthetic and an economic condition. Either way, what this album is ultimately “about,” for me, is the phase of late capitalism from which we have in specific ways never really emerged.
In this phase, so well captured by the cultural hallmarks of the 1980s, we have seen the “origin points” of developments that are still with us, which we are still living through, and whose consequences shape our present. These include massive disinvestments in infrastructure; the gutting of the welfare state; the ascendancy of supply-side economics; the de-regulation of financial industries and the economic crises that result; the rise and acceleration of finance capital and its associated consequences (e.g. persistently rising levels of income inequality); the proliferation of the neoliberal reduction of all cultural values into market terms; the associated rise of the individual over the collective; the spread of precarious “gig economy” jobs into ever more industries; the increase in anxiety and other mental health disorders across socioeconomic lines; and the development of futuristic versions of technology that we already have and do not need (e.g. car phones) over and above any developments — technological or otherwise — that might mitigate or reverse the collapse of our climate system. These are, broadly speaking, developments that were consecrated in the 1980s, and which compose the paradigm from which we cannot, apparently, escape. They are what we call “neoliberal” policies, and for authors like Jameson, postmodern cultural productions take place within and express this condition.
What Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism” and what Mark Fischer called Capitalist Realism have to do with exactly these developments, which among many other effects produce a kind of historical amnesia in our culture, a cognitive state in which we move from one present moment to the next, perpetually seeking stimuli that are infinitely available. In a world that has been effectively reduced to a market — that is to say, in a world in which everything is a commodity — the surface image becomes more important than the underlying reality: it matters less to us what we see on social media and more that we are not left alone with our thoughts. As a consequence, any underlying reality is increasingly difficult to grasp.
This, in a roundabout way, returns us to the question of nostalgia: Jameson famously argued that postmodern nostalgia genres reflect not actual historical time, but precisely our incapacity to situate our culture historically, writing that “This approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past” reflected little more than “the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.” And indeed, insofar as we have not been able to move on from the trends outlined above, there seems to be truth in the assertion that our society as a whole functions in a state of perpetual presentism, in which the next scandal, story, or market opportunity immediately takes the place of the last, and is pursued without consideration of any future consequences. We can be aware, vaguely, that it is “bad” to move onto the next story or scandal, that there is worth in pausing and processing the information that has blipped across our screens; but this vague sense or cautionary signal is not capable of halting the flow of media.
Still, if this is the case in terms of the dominant institutions of our time, it has never been true of all cultural production. For example, when Janelle Monae utilizes 1980s aesthetics (as in the Prince-style rhythm guitar of “The Way You Make Me Feel”), she does so in a multilayered and informed practice that situates her music squarely in the “changing same” (Amiri Baraka) of the Great Black Music tradition. Notably, her aesthetics also hail from the Afrofuturist tradition, which is nothing if not a vivid re-imagination of the future. Similarly, indigenous cultures all around the world have an acute awareness of the degradation of the planet by capital, and have always known (from the past) how to live sustainably (for the future). As Cornel West and bell hooks have argued, theories of the postmodern tend to derive from Eurocentric perspectives; considering Black American cultural production, for which a sense of history is central, complicates key tenets of postmodern theory. And yet, even here, there are other ways in which late capitalism invades what might not belong to it: that Black music bears a different relation to history does not preclude it from operating within a postmodern paradigm, particularly to the extent that we can read postmodernism and neoliberalism together. Another way of putting this might be to say that our “stuckness” in the 1980s paradigm may only hold at the level of hegemony, of our social institutions, and our broadest cultural discourse.
Similarly (and here, finally, is the punchline), my view of Golden Valley is that its use of “nostalgic” sounds reflects a degree of self-awareness regarding the recurring fever dream that constitutes this broader condition: we may not be able to break out of the postmodern paradigm, but this music knows it, and expresses that reality sonically. At the same time, this is only the first element of the album’s conceit: rather than simply staging nostalgic sounds as a means of attesting to our stuck-ness, Golden Valley also sounds the future breakdown of this paradigm, a breakdown that is becoming presently felt. While we are, in limited but inescapable ways, still living in the reality that the 1980s inaugurated, in other specific ways, these relations are threatening to or have already begun to break down. We have not yet emerged, but it increasingly feels like an ending is coming, that things are going to fall apart regardless. This paradoxical argument — between recurring stasis on the one hand and intensifying breakdown on the other — is expressed primarily through two sonic features, found in equal measure in almost every song: namely, cyclicality and displacement.
We hear cyclicality not only in the melodies, but also in the harmonic lines that often undergird the melodies. A kind of rhythmic scaffolding is built in which looping, recurring lines stack on top of one another, with the melody sitting at the top of the mix. The opening track is a good example here, as is “Song One.” Every gesture, once sounded, repeats, is built upon, taken into a new register or key, but never abandoned outright. This kind of looping quality reinforces the inescapable nature of the decade it sonically invokes.
Displacement of one kind or another also occurs in most if not every track. Listen to the way that “Polar Heros” introduces a groove that seems to reset itself in weird places (it’s a 7/4 pattern), the way the drums underneath sound how an electronic drumbeat should sound, but are also too schizophrenic for listeners to easily ground in a sense of rhythm. Similarly, “Solar Barges” builds movement on groups of five beats. Given that this music emerges from the jazz tradition, it is not surprising that such complex rhythmic elements would be used to build songs. But compared to the 4/4 grooves that characterize most hits from the 1980s, these songs have the effect of constantly breaking down and starting up again. To me, it makes for compelling listening. And at the same time, in constantly de- and re-stabilizing itself, it also has the effect of betraying its own premise.
Sometimes, cyclicality and displacement occur together, as in a “hemiola” or polyrhythm, where an irregular, looping phrase is stretched over a regular rhythm in a way that destabilizes our ears, making us unsure of where the downbeat is. For example, the last half of “This is Nothing” sees a dotted quarter-note melody repeated into oblivion and across a relatively consistent four-bar beat. In the last half of Highway 1000, the exciting, driving pulse of the drums is complicated by groupings of five 8th notes (synths) that cycle irregularly over the beat.
Together, displacement and cyclicality produce a twin affect: none of this is working, yet it continues. It does not continue in an identical way, nor does the continuation of the trends outlined here preclude differences from emerging. We are most certainly not living in the 1980s; but for all the ways in which our culture has changed, there are undergirding forces that we cannot escape. And especially where the climate is concerned, it is swiftly becoming too late for us to ever move on.
In short, our stuck-ness in this paradigm is starting to produce consequences that are not proper to it. Neoliberal policies, free to expand, have led not to democratization but to a concentration of power at the expense of everything else: the climate, first of all, but also even the globalized liberal order that gave birth to these policies in the first place. Here too, Golden Valley signals that it knows a crisis is on the way. In the penultimate track on the album, the harmonic texture, built layer by layer over the course of a long tune, becomes radically disrupted by the appearance of a sharp dissonance (3:20) that refuses to resolve, an event that is too jarring to ignore, one that continues to haunt our ears as the music dies down. The final track comes after the crisis, and is an elegy.
The question we are left with at the end of the album is then the question of what kind of a world has ended, and what will be left over in its place. It is as yet unclear what the nihilistic ascent of post-truth politics and its attendant populisms will produce; while the notion of “post-truth” does in some ways represent a kind of zenith of the postmodern attention-span, it also heralds something different than the neoliberal consensus that governed politics for decades. It is true that words seem to have less meaning and less force in what passes for our public sphere, but it is also true that the rise of populism and authoritarianism we’re witnessing are not the same as the “postpolitical” “end of history” that ruled the 1980s and 90s. Whether because the planet is going to end, or because, as some have argued, the neoliberal paradigm has provoked its own backlash, ours is a moment of suspended animation: the old sounds are still with us, but in new patterns, patterns that are constantly breaking and repairing themselves. In such a context, looking to the past for friendship and a sense of home is not only understandable but potentially necessary. With track titles like “High Waist Drifter,” “Polar Heros,” “Solar Barges,” and “The End of The World,” Golden Valley is Now uses post-apocalyptic imagery to assess our stuckness in an outdated paradigm and its consequences. In a world where our future is melting, the past can seem like the only alternative to which we can return.