The sliding scale of New York music and memory

I’ve got New York on my mind this week, for both obvious and less-obvious reasons.

The obvious, of course, is the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. We’re about to be caught up in a wave of “Where were you?” retrospectives, some poignant, some insufferable. But even if there’s bound to be some crass opportunism this week, there’s no question that the broader cultural significance of the original event—arguably the most significant shared experience of the shattered digital age—is worth the reflection.

The other, less obvious one (and of slightly less global significance) is that The Rapture and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah both have new albums.

The Rapture, the NYC band at the centre of the brief ‘dance punk’ flourish circa 2003, has returned with In The Grace of Your Love, a mildly schizophrenic album that, depending on the moment, almost pulls off both the ‘return to form’ and the ‘new and exciting’ tags. It gets major points for including perhaps the year’s best dance jam: the spectacular, not Bee Gees-related “How Deep is Your Love.” And even when the album is uninspired—like the rote “Never Die Again”—it’s at least still somewhat entertaining.

In contrast, the new record from Brooklyn’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Hysterical, is a near-total failure. It’s missing both the sharp edges and the memorable melodies of the band’s famously self-released 2005 breakthrough debut, and it pales even in comparison to that record’s underwhelming follow-up, Some Loud Thunder. The new album is pleasant enough, but on cursory listens, it offers nothing worth remembering. For a band that made its name on a hooky-as-hell record, that’s a fairly epic disappointment.

But here’s the thing that strikes me about all this: September 11, 2001 feels like it was just yesterday. But the heydays of The Rapture and CYHSY—closer in objective time—feel like FOREVER ago.

How does that make any sense?

I’d be tempted to dismiss this as a matter of scale; culturally, The Rapture and CYHSY were entertaining blips, whereas September 11 was a global event. It looms larger in my memory because, well, it’s larger. But I have musical memories that followed in the aftermath of the attacks – and likewise, are connected with New York City. And they feel every bit as current and immediate in my memory as the terrorist attacks.

There’s The Strokes’ Is This It, which had its American released delayed after 9/11 and, disappointingly, had one of its best tracks (“New York City Cops”) pulled. I was late to the party on that one, and it was only after the news broke of its delay that I got caught up in the deserved hype. Then there’s Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, originally released on September 11, 2001, which in the weeks afterwards not only seemed to embody a New York sensibility, but which heralded the arrival of Kanye West as a super-producer.

Those albums, like the terrorist attacks, feel like they just happened, like I was only yesterday sitting in my dorm room taking in the sights, sounds and sensibilities of my first year of undergrad. In reality, of course, a decade has passed, a fact which came flying out of nowhere at me earlier this summer when Stereogum ran a tenth anniversary tribute to Is This It, inspiring practically a spit-take from this writer. Has it really been that long?

It could be that Is This It and The Blueprint are linked with the attacks in my recollections, intertwined with the awkward, soul-searching sentiments that seemed to affect all of North America in the days and weeks afterwards. But I’m not sure that alone is enough to explain why those New York records seem so much closer than the New York records by this week’s comeback bands.

Maybe it’s the split between art that’s ‘timeless’ and art that’s ‘of its time.’ Though they inspired many trendhoppers, I suspect that The Blueprint and Is This It are records that I’ll pull out and play for someone 20 years from now as simply ‘great’ records, separate from their own time and context. In fact, taken away from their imitators, they may end up sounding every bit as fresh as they did in their moment.

In contrast, though I’d make a case for each of them as objectively solid works, I’d bet that both The Rapture’s breakthrough “House of Jealous Lovers” and CYHSY’s debut album will play better in 20 years as museum pieces. They’re what I’ll put on the stereo as a memory, to contextualize ‘This is what we were doing in the first decades of the 21st century.’ We were caught up in referential New York dance punk. We were seeing the potential of DIY indie rock. And the Internet was blowing up bands huge—and sometimes, sending them crashing back down to earth—more organically than ever before.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: there’s a difference between something being essential, and it being the essence of something else. I’m not saying that actual music that The Rapture and CYHSY made didn’t matter, but it tapped into other trends and sentiments that amplified it, made it sound like something extraordinarily exciting. Maybe with The Rapture, it was that New York wanted to dance—with GUITARS—again, and wanted the world to join in. Maybe with CYHSY, it was that great music could come, out of the blue, from anywhere.

The other item to consider, of course, is that memory is inseparable from culture. Jay-Z and The Strokes have never really gone away; even when the latter took a hiatus, there were solo albums, and an incessant amount of “Work begins on new Strokes albums” headlines and the like. The Strokes and Jay-Z always seemed top-of-mind. And Jay-Z’s retirement was even more short-lived than Michael Jordan’s (which he referenced in “Encore”). In contrast, we kind of let The Rapture go after the quite-underrated Pieces of the People We Love proved less phenom-worthy; same thing with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah after Some Loud Thunder. That sense of ‘foregottenness’ makes them seem much further away in our memory.

This may be a disappointingly self-evident conclusion to reach: that we more easily recall things that we keep with us. But during a week when we’ll all be reflecting on how 3,000 deaths defined an entire decade, the power of a phrase like ‘never forget’ is worth remembering.

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