Combing through used vinyl at Amoeba Music the other week, I came across an inexpensive copy of Talk Talk’s debut album, The Party’s Over. I hadn’t listened to the ’80s art-rock band in quite a few years — and not regularly since college — but I decided to trust my 19-year-old self and buy the record. I was slightly thrown by the sound, which was more like straightforward pop than what I recalled of the group. Searching their catalog, I realized what had happened: In college, I had only cared about the spare, experimental albums of their later period — the forerunners of the millennial post-rock I loved.
Not long after my stroll down memory lane, Mark Hollis, the frontman of Talk Talk, passed away.
Any obituary reminds us that life is fleeting, but the coincidence of stumbling across The Party’s Over got me thinking about the ephemerality of music, not just as a form but as a force: Why did I “forget” that I liked Talk Talk? How had I even found them in an age before the algorithm decided what I needed to hear? And when did I stop agonizing over questions of taste, or seeking difficult and obscure music, and decide that it was fine to groove on Tom Petty? (After I quit reading Pitchfork, probably.)
When I asked my friends about the music that obsessed them in the transition from high school to adulthood, many remarked on how friendship shaped their listening habits. Christine remembers a guy from Long Island who was unpopular in his fraternity and therefore “used to let me hang out and listen to Wu-Tang and Aesop Rock on the dope sound system in his dorm room.” Pierce, from Ireland, remembers listening to “plenty of embarrassing stuff in my early teens, but by 19 I suddenly and luckily had great recommendations,” including “Sparklehorse and Pavement — American bands that never made it big over here.” And Caroline, who dug the melancholy jangle-pop of the Field Mice, had been fortunate to receive the sought-after “C86” compilation of that scene, first released by NME as a cassette.
I, too, had cobbled together something of a new aesthetic from bits and pieces of other people’s music libraries. My roommate sold me on the amniotic drones of Sigur Rós, and we left them on as we went to sleep. I fell for one girl when she introduced me to My Bloody Valentine, still my favorite band and the starting point for a lifelong infatuation with swirling shoegaze. I fell for another girl who burned me a copy of Arcade Fire’s Funeral, whose soaring anthems my entire age cohort seems to associate with college. Canadian indie rock (Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers, Wolf Parade, Destroyer) was especially cool in the mid-aughts, maybe because America was so embarrassing and not as witty or tender as its northern neighbor.
But several bands appear to transcend the fads of the moment to attain a “college-y” reputation. Neutral Milk Hotel came up a lot, as did a slew of ’90s outfits with a similar blend of shaggy production and sly tunefulness, many on the Merge and Matador labels: Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, Sonic Youth, Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney. “College Rock” even is (or was) a functioning meta-genre, the catchall term for what the student-run radio station played.
The appeal went deeper than countercultural heft, as my colleague Tracy Moore sees it: “It had weird shitty low-ass bedroom vocals (usually recorded on 4-tracks), didn’t care how the vocals were mixed at all, was sloppy or had weird time signatures and weirder tunings, and didn’t want to be popular at all,” she says. “And yet it still had insane hooks that were hiding in plain sight. All that represented exactly the identity-searching stuff you want in college that distinguishes you from everyone else (even though everyone else you know loves it too).”
At the same time that we were drawn to music that allowed us to rock out and party hard, we also wanted sophistication, a higher and artsier aspect. This is what led us to the fiercely political 20-minute dirges of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the alien catchiness of the Pixies, the cubist electronica of Aphex Twin, and hushed, hypersensitive singer-songwriters like Bon Iver, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. These musicians all matched the hormone-addled emotive content of what we liked in high school but offered access to fun pretension — looking at you, Magnetic Fields — and they all paired well with drugs/alcohol.
If we sense we’re losing touch with the sonic headspace we had back then (or simply losing our edge, as LCD Soundsystem had it), that’s because it was a period of newfound independence, exploration and constant reinvention. I can remember sometimes worrying I’d run out of new music to try, even as I realized I’d barely scratched the surface of what was there. I spent hours researching bands that had anything in common with the bands I loved, craving more of their effect.
And when you weren’t throwing a rager, or smoking weed to something trippy, you may have wanted to crack the case of the “ultimate hookup album.” My senior year, In the Reins, the collaborative record of Calexico and Iron & Wine, became a kind of audio shorthand for a couple getting frisky the dorm suite. (My attempts to use aimless guitar feedback for the same purpose were not as successful.) Now, putting on music to have sex strikes me as over-the-top, but that’s exactly it: When you’re on the cusp of adulthood, it seems necessary to soundtrack every mood and waking moment. On a campus in the 2000s, you accomplished this with a network of connected iTunes libraries — open your laptop and you could play any mp3 that a classmate possessed, not a few of them sourced to the Wild West of illegal file-sharing systems.
That may also be why our college-era music has receded so far into the distance. It’s not that we tired of our favorites; it’s that we left old tech behind. Stephanie Eisler, a writer and sometime music critic, put it this way in a Twitter DM: “Honestly, I think part of that is how frequently we’ve all switched formats/platforms in the last few decades. Like, I’m a Spotify person, but that’s really just for new music and the occasional throwback that I’ve accumulated since I started there.”
I’m the same way. At this point, my never-used iTunes account is a dusty archive. Likewise, you may remember having a book of CDs that would serve as a fingerprint or time capsule of what you wanted to hear in the pre-digital age. When someone smashed my car window and stole my collection, it was akin to a theft of my consciousness from 1998 to 2006. Lots of hidden treasure in there.
And this, I think, is why I’ve become a bin-diving vinyl guy. What really excites in this hobby is the jolt of recognition — Hey, I remember these guys! — that Talk Talk’s debut gave me. Occasionally, a band name or cover art will be only faintly familiar, drifting at the bottom of my memory, but if the record is cheap enough, I’ll buy it anyway. Then I have the pleasure of putting it on and rediscovering the sound that imprinted on me long ago. It’s a ritual of unforgetting, piecing together a landscape by soft intuition.
Best of all, returning to a hazy past is a lot like finding something new. Talk Talk was futuristic and strange and arresting to me the first time I played them, nearly three decades after they’d formed. Maybe, in art, everything’s been done. Doesn’t mean we’re done with it.
Here’s a playlist to jump-start your journey inward. Luckily, there’s no homework this time around: