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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem (Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Losing their edge, again: The year of indie rock’s inevitable midlife crisis

James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem (Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Back in February, Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth took to his Instagram to pose an existential question: “Is it me or is the condition of indie rock in the 24½th century both bad and boujee?” “Bad,” he meant, in the sense that it was now largely a “musically underwhelming” Xerox of groups that came before. “Boujee” he meant as being “well removed from the raindrops and drop tops of lived, earned experience.” And “indie rock” as, well, whatever the fuck that’s ever meant—an amorphous genre of music primarily defined by its frequent public agonizing over what it is and isn’t. And especially, whether it still exists.

As indicated by Longstreth’s awkward Migos reference, the case for indie rock’s dwindling cachet has picked up steam again in the last couple of years. More specifically to Longstreth’s point, the kind he practiced—the sort of progressive, experimental (and, let’s be real, not particularly “rocking”) indie rock that dominated the cultural conversation throughout the 2000s—has today been supplanted at the top of Billboard and best-of lists by hip-hop, electronic, and even once verboten top 40-friendly pop artists, all of whom have been newly embraced by those same erstwhile tastemakers as part of the recent, scales-righting semi-movement known as “poptimism.” Indie rock may not have been dead in 2017. It may not even have been bad nor boujee, nor particularly “indie.” But it certainly wasn’t what everyone was talking about, except in terms of its irrelevance.

Longstreth obviously had a personal stake in this argument—as did Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, who chimed in to suggest that, while there were obviously still worthwhile artists working in the genre, indie had more or less reached its “progressive” peak around 2009. As did Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, who contributed a bemused, Munchian scream. All three are veterans of that ’00s indie wave; all three were set to release new albums in 2017, returning after brief to longish hiatuses to a changed marketplace that seemed suddenly ambivalent toward them. With Lizzy Goodman’s expansive oral history Meet Me In The Bathroom also arriving this year to put, if not a headstone, then a historical marker on the indie-rock heyday that sprung up around The Strokes and The White Stripes et al., 2017 seemed like as good a time as any for ’00s indie rock to begin its inevitable midlife crisis in earnest.

Of course, in many ways, it’d been having one since the very beginning. When LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy released “Losing My Edge” in 2002—the sarcastic, self-deprecating anthem of every early-’00s scenester—he offered a preemptive obituary for the era before it had even started. Long before Longstreth lamented today’s artists “miming a codified set of sounds & practices whose significance is inherited rather than discovered or reflective of the world as we experience it now,” Murphy was looking around their shared New York scene nearly 20 years ago, sneering at all the kids with their Can and Suicide records, their thrift-store leather jackets and their refurbished analog synthesizers, and their “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s”—a collective yearning for someone else’s memories.

The bands and the songs that flourished in that post-punk/new-wave/garage revival scene arrived prematurely wizened, their sounds inspired by previous lost generations, their lyrics already mourning broken connections and the rapid passing of time. “It’s different now that I’m poor and aging,” Interpol’s Paul Banks moaned at a ripe old 23. “When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw / Now I go out alone, if I go out at all,” The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser lamented on “The Rat,” offering a sing-along eulogy for the good old days while they were ostensibly in the thick of them. These bands played an older person’s music for an older person’s tastes; many of them dressed in an older person’s clothes while singing of an older person’s concerns.

But in 2017, they actually are old, at least in rock terms. Most of those Meet Me In The Bathroom artists are now pushing 40, or are well over it—an unofficial dividing line in this ruthlessly youth-obsessed business. Those NYC bands had all been fed by the sense of urgency and wild abandon that came from watching the Twin Towers crumble on their doorsteps. They lived and wrote like there was no tomorrow, because it didn’t seem like there would be. You can perhaps forgive them for freaking out a little when tomorrow actually arrived, and all those once-knowingly “retro” artists suddenly reached their very own classic-rock moment—watching as Interpol toured behind the 15th anniversary of Turn On The Bright Lights, for example, creating a rippling wave of depressed thirty- and fortysomethings realizing they could no longer squeeze into their old white belts. That anxiety permeated their new records—if not the music itself, then the conversation surrounding it. The “comeback” of ’00s indie rock became the dominant narrative.

In many cases, it wasn’t totally clear what they were coming back from. Spoon and The National last had new albums just three and four years ago, respectively, so not exactly a generation (even in a year that felt like 10). Meanwhile, it was only a five-year break between records for Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear, six for Fleet Foxes and Feist, and another seven for Feist’s old stomping grounds Broken Social Scene. While that’s perhaps a longer than average time between releases in our internet-addled, short-term-memory-lapsed age, it’s not like all those bands had abandoned music and decamped to the woods in the interim (not even the dudes in Fleet Foxes). Even the one guy who actually had made a big, public deal out of retiring, then returning—James Murphy—was only gone for less time than it took to get a new Feist song.

You can probably partly blame Murphy for that narrative’s existence. Both the promotional cycle for American Dream and the album itself felt suffused with the weight of age, with the 47-year-old Murphy bemoaning his being a “reminder, a hobbled veteran” of barely a decade ago, shuffling in on bad knees to snark about the empty fluff the kids are streaming while he’s scrolling past all the now-dead people in his phone. American Dream offers the perfect epilogue to Meet Me In The Bathroom, from its scorching, supplemental-reading-required diss track aimed at Murphy’s former partner Tim Goldsworthy to its thematic through-line about mourning all those “life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat.” Just as “Losing My Edge” threw that ’00s indie-rock scene a defeatist, kickoff dance party, American Dream gave it a class reunion where we could all stand around and talk about who got gray and fat, and who we’ve fallen out of touch with completely, all while Ryan Adams and Julian Casablancas fought drunkenly in the corner.

There was also Arcade Fire—and if you were composing a think piece about ’00s indie-rock bands struggling to find their foothold in 2017, you couldn’t ask for a more symbolic example than the reaction to Everything Now. The Montreal band returned after four years of relative quiet with its quasi-conceptual, Poe’s law of an album that satirized/embraced pop fluff, kicked off by a massive—and massively confusing—satirical campaign that poked fun at modern music’s disposable, tabloid-driven promotional cycle. It was a polarizing attempt at taking the earnest, suburban childhood-evoking nostalgists—the ones whose earlier albums might have soundtracked a girl’s suicide attempt, as Win Butler sings on “Creature Comfort”—and remaking them into snide, culture-jamming cynics. And it mostly just left people cold and annoyed. In the end, Everything Now marked Arcade Fire’s Pop moment: Like U2, it may continue to have a successful, possibly even arena-headlining career, but it may never recover whatever shred of “cool” it had left—even as its next album will also surely be some sort of back-to-basics recalibration, an attempt to recapture that emotional connection its first few albums seemed to make so effortlessly, and that Everything Now seemed to regard so warily.

As for Longstreth, his own crisis was far more personal. The end of his romantic relationship with the band’s singer-guitarist Amber Coffman—in the wake of the departures of singers Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle—put a definitive end to the hocketing, harmonic pop sound Dirty Projectors had perfected on 2009’s “peak indie” album, Bitte Orca. In its wake was a breakup record that felt at times uncomfortably direct, Longstreth coming on like the newly bearded, wine-drunk divorcé airing his dirtiest laundry through the petty sniping of songs like “Keep Your Name” or the diarist’s recounting of “Up In Hudson.” The music, too, is unusually scattered and restless, even for an artist as eclectic as Longstreth. Dirty Projectors is such a searching, existential spiral that everything about it—the mass of autobiographical detail; its closing lyric, “The projection has faded away”; the summation implied by its being self-titled—seemed designed to say goodbye, at least to this phase of Longstreth’s career.

Or maybe it just feels that way, because that’s the story that’s been forced upon it. Liars’ Angus Andrew also released a self-described “breakup record” in this year’s TFCF, and while the relationship he was deconstructing was strictly professional—co-founder Aaron Hemphill left during its production—the songs are still colored by that dissolution, from the unusually raw, emotional lyrics to the myriad, strange-even-for-Liars sounds Andrew created when he vanished into the Australian outback on his own. And yet, for all its dark night of the soul qualities, TFCF feels less like an ending than a new beginning. Maybe it’s because Liars have constantly been evolving since those itchy dance-punk days chronicled in Meet Me In The Bathroom, but somehow it feels like it will always come back from whatever, in some form or another.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of these “comeback” bands didn’t even have anything in particular to overcome. Most simply stayed the course, and many even continued to evolve. Even Fleet Foxes, whose rustic idylls now evoke pleasantly Obama-era visions of listening to “White Winter Hymnal” in reclaimed wood-bedecked craft cocktail bars, surrounded by bearded hipsters in heritage tweed, and whose band was overshadowed, even in its big return to the spotlight, by the wryly self-aware, postmodern pop star posturing of their former drummer, Father John Misty. The group’s new The Crack-Up returns feeling wearier and wiser but also wilder, the sound of a band that now warily regards those friendly folk reveries—or the image that was concocted around them, at least—refracted through an impressively matured grasp of styles and dynamic shifts. It’s an unexpected progression, not just a polite reminder.

Conversely, The National’s Sleep Well Beast, Grizzly Bear’s Painted Ruins, and Spoon’s Hot Thoughts may not take those kinds of stylistic leaps, but neither do they represent the sort of creative coasting (or worse, desperate trend-chasing) that bands with their longevity tend to fall into. Hot Thoughts is simply a further refinement of one of the most meticulously honed bands in rock history, a slinky, after-the-disco spin on Britt Daniel’s timeless and infallible sense of cool. Similarly, Grizzly Bear may have roughed up its sound a bit on Painted Ruins, allowing more cutting grooves and dirtier tones to intrude on its former pastoral beauty, but it’s still largely defined by its gorgeousness; any hint of singer Ed Droste’s recent divorce or the general state of the world is largely (and wisely) an abstraction that’s subsumed by its washes of beauty. And while Sleep Well Beast is openly a personal, often-harrowing chronicling of Matt Berninger’s marriage falling apart and then rebuilding—with, inevitably, some Trump thrown in—it’s still very much of a piece with the somber, reflective albums that came before it. All of them are great albums; all of them are bigger and more lasting than any “comeback” narrative.

And just like all of those artists, look, indie rock is fine. You don’t need me or David Longstreth to tell you that. There are—and will always be, until the robots or nuclear ash overtakes us—inventive, idiosyncratic bands wresting songs out of guitars and drums in new and surprising ways. There were plenty more this year. Granted, it’s no longer topping the charts or the zeitgeist; even Pitchfork gets more mileage these days out of daily Taylor Swift updates than it does throwing its weight behind, say, The Menzingers. But there are literally thousands of young bands wringing new life out of rock’s never-more-expansive subgenres. Just like there are plenty of “old” ones still making music worth listening to.

What has changed, perhaps, is who’s leading them: The “white male voice” that was long dominant—and that Longstreth, Pecknold, Murphy et al. represent—has increasingly been replaced by women, people of color, and LGBTQ artists. And speaking of narratives, the downside of “poptimism” and the click economy that keeps sites like Pitchfork (and The A.V. Club) alive is that it inherently prioritizes celebrity over celebrating newer, perhaps not as fully formed artists. There’s a redoubled emphasis on who has a clearly defined image and a compelling backstory to tell; just being a group of reasonably good-looking dudes sharing a Williamsburg loft no longer cuts it. And perhaps even more pointedly relevant to the New York scene that Goodman’s book memorializes, no one really knows—or gives a fuck about—where bands are from anymore. We all live on the internet now; cities and scene mean little to those outside of them. The most vibrant “scene” of the past decade is SoundCloud.

And that, more than anything, probably speaks to the origins of this narrative: 2017 wasn’t indie rock’s midlife crisis—it was ours, by which I mean mine. The initial rise of those ’00s bands not so coincidentally dovetailed with that of the blogs who fostered them, and their “return” was a sobering reminder of our former glory days and our fading power. You don’t need critics and bloggers to tell you what’s worth listening to anymore; you can just go to Spotify or SoundCloud or Bandcamp and figure it out for yourself. And hey, while you’re there, maybe you can recommend some stuff to us. There are more new artists than ever to keep track of, working across more genres than ever, and it’s impossible for anyone to stay on top of them all, let alone assign them any sort of hierarchy in a culture so crowded, diverse, and vibrant. Besides, we’re all getting older and we don’t have as much time to go out these days, and when we do, we’re tired now that we don’t do drugs anymore.

Or as Pecknold put it when replying to Longstreth, “Maybe the world is sort of a static constellation of states that we just move through as we get older, and it can seem like the world is changing when really it’s just us?” Maybe. Almost definitely. At least we got some more good records out of it.