The Reminiscence Bump

Courtesy Loneliest Place on Earth records

The year in music: 2023 had seen many notable new releases, but sometimes you just want to be at home

In November, at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire in West London, my voice began to fail. The air was second-hand and thick, the lighting was in rapture, the space between strangers had all but melted away. With the arms of two friends pressing down into my shoulders and a distant wave of fists striking the air, we screamed in a rough attempt at unison: I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure where home is anymore.

I rarely go to gigs these days. I rarely muster the courage to enter major venues. But this sold-out midweek show by Pennsylvanian pop-punk band The Wonder Years, marking the ten-year anniversary of their album The Greatest Generation, came with nostalgia attached. The album was meaningful to each of us – to myself, to the dear friends who were at that moment hanging from my neck. It was a salve and a sanctuary. It was recognition. The Greatest Generation tells stories of moving from adolescence to adulthood, of leaving things behind, of failing and being failed by others and enduring nonetheless. ‘Bury me in the memories of my friends and family’, Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell sings on the record’s closing track, ‘I just need to know that they were proud of me’. It is an album that I have not returned to for some time – I have strayed from the genre altogether, in truth – but from the outset of that evening in West London, it was evident that its every word, melody and moment of collective subcultural validation have remained with me, held inside for future use.

Cover art for Lana Del Rey’s Did You Know That There‘s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd.

In terms of releases, 2023 has been understated yet overachieving. Lana Del Rey’s vocals soar skywards as we speak; Arthur Russell’s, resurrected once again on Picture of Bunny Rabbit, continue to confound. Armand Hammer confound, also, but in a manner all the more jarring and delightfully inscrutable. (‘Zimbabwe, Rhodesia / Drive-In movie theatre / Toyota Cressida, heavy metal speaker’.) Can Liturgy bring more intensity? Can Ryuichi Sakamoto, with his haunting expanses of open space? Can Yussef Dayes get any smoother? Can Tujiko Noriko? Can Earl Sweatshirt, for that matter, as he slurs and suspends across line breaks: ‘I recollect all the pain I had to author, fresh / wading out in the waves, foot on a colonizer neck / like a collar, curtailed I’m tryna follow the trail / cut off the coattails they hangin’ on to’. And, while not a 2023 release, can there be anything more disarming and heartening than Alan Sparhawk taking the stage once again following the recent death of Mimi Parker, his wife and the singer and drummer of Low, the band that the pair founded in 1993 having first met in primary school.

But what was notable, while auditing my listening patterns for this past year, was the realisation of how little time I have spent with each of these artists. Along with Yves Tumor, Apollo Brown & Planet Asia, Nia Archives and Genesis Owusu, they have produced, to my mind, the standout records of 2023. But while they have each had their moments, few have remained constant. Few have soundtracked evenings, few have joined commutes, few have been internalised and integrated and deemed wholly integral to the ongoingness of the everyday. In past years, I would have familiarised myself with these records in gratuitous detail – each progression, key change and rhythmic transition; each atmospheric dip and deep swell in response – not as the result of a conscious effort but a slow and welcome immersion enacted across a protracted period of time. But now, it would appear, I seek the company of a handful of trusted albums, each of which is partnered with and called upon in response to a specific mood or situation. The many have been replaced by a handful; the new replaced by the known. The art of active listening has given way to something all the more passive – something comfortable.

When our pulses quicken, we seek refuge in the routines that relax us. When our spirits are low, we return to that which and those who we know will lift them. Music has been proven to trigger recent or distant recollections more strongly than either taste or smell. (Songs from late adolescence and early adulthood tend to elicit a disproportionate amount of nostalgia, a phenomenon referred to as ‘the reminiscence bump’.) As such, when we find ourselves on the precipice of trying scenarios – or, by contrast, trivial scenarios that we would rather dispatch with quickly – we often reacquaint ourselves with the sounds that say to us: you have been through this before and yes you will move through this again. This year, I have found one album to write to (Lana, again) and one album to read to (Blue Lake, Sun Arcs). There has been one to pick me up (Caroline Polachek, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You), one to set me down (Boygenius, the record), one to fill the silence (Tujiko Noriko, Crépuscule I & II). There has been one that I have turned to when I haven’t known where else to turn (Yussef Dayes, Black Classical Music). Or, more precisely, I have unconsciously singled out a series of albums that have reliably allowed me to navigate each of these unique situations. At certain times, we need discovery; at others, we need to feel the proximity of the things we trust. This year, I suppose, I have needed that closeness. ‘Like a habit, I build up a list’, Yaeji whispers at the tail end of her exemplary debut With A Hammer, ‘Stack of reasons why I don’t want to / Be alone in this’.

Ryuichi Sakamoto in Coda, dir. Stephen Nomura Schible, 2017. ©MUBI/courtesy Everett Collection

The Wonder Years closed out their set at the O2 with ‘Came Out Swinging’, the punchy opener of their album Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing (2011). The title pays homage to Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘America’ (‘America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing […] I can’t stand my own mind’), for an album that is the first in a coming-of-age trilogy ending with The Greatest Generation. Lyrically, musically, sentimentally, it is an angrier proposition than its successor: less introspective than explosive, less concerned with answers than with hurling its questions at the world. (‘I’m not a self-help book / I’m just a fucked-up kid / I had to take my own advice and I did.’) Which is to say that, upon its release in 2011, when the two above-mentioned friends and I were in our late teens, it sounded like we felt. It was stuck, as we were; it was stifled and brooding and yearning for something other than what we had. To return to that album now – to ride the curvature of the reminiscence bump – is to be unsettled by how instantaneously the half-formed rage of adolescence can be accessed again, while taking immense pleasure in how distant it feels. To do so while reflecting on this past year of listening is to consider which albums might play that role in the future – and to marvel at how far we have yet to go.

As Hanif Abdurraqib writes of Suburbia, which remains The Wonder Years’s most accomplished and honest to date: ‘It is an album of return and escape and return and escape again. It feels, in tone and tension, like coming home’. Music, our chosen music, allows us to come back home, even at a distance, even for a moment. It allows us to locate ourselves, to reaffirm our place, to return and escape and return and escape again if only to remind ourselves of why we fled in the first place. ‘Home is where the heart begins’, Abdurraqib continues, ‘but not where the heart stays.’ Which is not to say that, as the heart beats its way to its eventual elsewheres, home is not important.

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London

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