I had a recent health issue/dream/possible side-effect of a wild youth that I brought to two friends of mine, trying to avoid a visit to the dreaded doctor. One, a recent UC Irvine medical school graduate, was generally unconcerned. The other, a current Harvard graduate student in Evolutionary Psychology, took more of an interest, mostly in how I described the experience. What was interesting to him was my recollection of the situation, how I described it, and what I chose to leave out or not remember. He noted that the human memory is one of the most fallible records we have, yet we rely on it for everything. Criminals are judged based on memory, relationships maintained on them, as well. Yet, anyone who has ever had a few too many drinks can tell you that the memory is easily tampered with even as relatively low amount of change is presented to its environment.
I thought of this while repeatedly listening to Wild Nothing’s stunning work of art, Gemini. Though not a perfect record, the album manages to present a thoughtful piece of nostalgia for a time that Jack Tatum, the young singer/songwriter, never experienced: the 1980’s. By my count he was at most two years old in the 80’s, but our knowledge of the human brain practically validates his nostalgia piece as being as valid and potentially accurate as our own. Like his kindred band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (TPoBaH), and many of the chill-wave bedroom bands that are becoming fully realized (Memory Tapes, Toro Y Moi, Aerial Pink), somehow the British sound that never fit Americans at the time of its conception is being predicted and made new through this type of dreamy fantasy. And while some might write off the obvious debt owed to Tears for Fears on “Drifter” or Johnny Marr on “Bored Games”, doing so would be a mistake and you’d miss out on one of the most enjoyable records in recent memory.
Whether it’s a mother or a lover that he attempts to reach throughout (beginning with the shatteringly sad “Live In Dreams”), it is clear that Tatum would rather stay in the past than deal with the present. “Live In Dreams” states a desire t0 avoid aging and change and disintegration by dreaming, dying, or remembering. All are escape plans and song after song can be seen as little attempts to do one of these. Or maybe he is trying to understand something or someone he can’t remember by reaching out to the music of the era. The lyrics are vague enough to find multiple readings, but lines like “we all have eyes in the back of our heads” plays on the cliche of hyper-awareness with a sort universal remembrance, because, indeed, there are histories and songs to take over where our memory can’t go.
But it doesn’t all get this heavy. “O, Lilac” and “Bored Games” provide an upbeat false front, like happiness seen through the haze of winter. The play-like takes on The Stone Roses, the latter using more new wave-y synth beats to turn the sound upside down as a straight homage. It’s these little details and moments that really shine, as they are all expertly crafted and solid melodically. When you have a whole album of consistently well-crafted pop music, the songs need to do more than just be good to standout. Thus, the hand-clap finale of “Summer Holiday” and the falsetto chorus of “Confirmation” turn decent songs into the kind of tracks you’ll include on mixes for girls or listen to on a long drive home by yourself.
And that’s one thing that this record does that I haven’t heard another solo-project-as-band succeed at. That is, that Gemini sounds lonely. It’s like Tatum sought Robert Smith and Morrissey to keep him company when his family was gone and his band was imaginary. And to make music so solitary sounding and melancholy, yet still upbeat, is something that the first 80’s revival didn’t seem to get and chill wave doesn’t even attempt. And though the song could easily be traded to TPoBaH, their aesthetics are distinct (Pains = more youthful sincerity, Wild Nothing = more old-soul clarity).
And if it could be sustained throughout, Gemini would be a classic. However, the record’s pace and trackorder is flawed. “Chinatown” works melodically, but sounds weak compared to the first half of the album with a kind of reaching drum beat. Most disappointing, though, is the album closer and title track “Gemini”. It’s the only melody that has a failure for a hook; the riff isn’t memorable and the lyrics are unintelligible. And because it’s the title-track, the listener wants to find some greater importance to the song that this listener simply can’t. It’s an unfortunate way to end an album that is otherwise brilliant.
Individually, the songs work like a memory; they can be shared but in the end, they are all your own. Tatum makes these trusty sounds from decades past his own and even with the parts that don’t quite work, you know that they work for him. And that’s something Gemini, a sign known for its duality, gets right more than it gets wrong. It knows when to hold something in and when to share it. Tatum surely has more tricks up his sleeve and he is too young to mine the 80’s for the rest of his life. It feels like we have only received a first glance (ya know, besides his earlier, relatively unknown projects) to a songwriter who is just starting to express himself and the life he dreams of.