The 1990s were a darned good decade, and everybody’s now coming to realize this
– Douglas Coupland, 1990s: The Good Decade
Vancouver trio The Courtneys took their time with their latest album, II, follow-up to their 2013 debut. Thankfully, on their also-self-titled sophomore record, the band quickly prove they haven’t changed too much in the last four years. Each track bears all the hallmarks that created the cult-status that saw The Courtneys sign to legendary New Zealand label (and major influence) Flying Nun Records, serving gem after gem of throwback fuzzy garage pop with enough rough edges to keep things from getting too syrupy.
Most of all, the album is fun, with enough bouncy power pop vibes, catchy hooks and droll charm to ensure repeated plays. Evoking the early 90s in many ways, the record plays on the fond nostalgia for the period (at least for those of us of a certain age), and you can’t help but feel the band have come back at just the right time. It seems we’re officially past the arbitrary pop culture no-go period (roughly twenty years is my guess), and the 90s haven’t been so popular since, well, the 90s. The kids are decked out in flannel and denim, everyone’s talking about Twin Peaks and a new Zelda videogame, even Tamagotchis are making a comeback.
But why exactly? These things are definitely cyclical, and the corporate machine regurgitates old things to affect our emotions and manipulate us into buying stuff, but what if there’s something deeper? What if we’re all subconsciously wishing for a simpler time? As Coupland describes, “The 1990s possessed a sense of happiness that seems long vanished. Money still generated money. Computers were becoming fast easy and cheap, and with them came a sense equality for everyone. Things were palpably getting better everywhere. History was over and it felt great.”
What does all this have to do with The Courtneys? Well, perhaps nothing, but something about their music scratches this itch, intentionally or not. The album begins as it means to go on with ‘Silver Velvet’, a fuzzed-out pop song about helplessly falling for the wrong person, the first of many tracks to be framed in a lovesick pining for someone far away. But The Courtneys don’t do mopey self-pity, things perfectly catchy and dynamic throughout. Like on ‘Country Song’, with its deceptively upbeat-sounding chorus, when lead Jen Twynn Payne sings, “and I wake up in the afternoon, late to bed I woke too soon / this is not the place I need, but for now it’s what I lead.” ‘Tour’ follows at a gallop, the punchy drum beat cutting a swathe through edgy guitars and gauzy vocals, just one example on II where The Courtneys throw in a little punk to keep their pop honest. As the title suggests, the song captures that breathless freedom of hitting the road, all new dawns and sparkling seascapes and the scent of endless possibility.
“It’s time for us to let go
slack off and hit the open road
driving down the western sea
the sun it gets higher”
Anyone who’s followed the Courtneys for a while will likely already be familiar with ‘Lost Boys’, their ode to the 1987 movie of the same name, unquestionably the best vampire boyfriend-themed song of recent years (“take me on a motorcycle / flying down the highway we go / headed in the wrong direction / pale skin no reflection, and you’ll never grow old and you’ll never die / and that just makes me want to cry”). ‘25’ has the air of Vancouver’s neon-lit alleys on a warm spring night, the smell of stale beer and cigarettes and the Burrard Inlet, while ‘Iron Deficiency’ is a post-punk stomp full of deadpan directness, and ‘Mars Attacks’ sweetens things with a sugary burst of pop. Closer ‘Frankie’ returns to the themes of distance and separation, the narrator pining for the title character in a bubbly swirl of appreciation that’s ultimately positive and uplifting, as Payne sings:
“Frankie you’re on mind
nearly all the time
but it’s not that bad
and frankly you’re so far away
almost every day
and it drives me mad”
In the article referenced above, Coupland speaks about attending the grand opening of The Mall of America in Minnesota in 1992. A local radio host, who took him for a hip, sneering postmodern writer, asked him if the mall represented excess and brainless capitalism, but Coupland disagreed. “No not at all,” he said. “I actually think that future generations are going to look at images of today here in Minnesota and see them as a sort of golden age of American culture. The peace. The calm. The abundance. The bottomless goodwill of everyone here. I’m unsure if it’s going to last much longer and I think we should appreciate it while it’s here.” The quote seems relevant to The Courtneys II. There’s something joyfully nostalgic about the album, the aural equivalent of the era it borrows from musically. It’s wrapped up in the warm fuzzy tape hiss of the late 80s / early 90s, that period of endless possibility, where everything was colourful and exciting and came with a free toy. In a time where the future is so uncertain, it’s little wonder we find ourselves looking back with longing.