The Battle of Nostalgia: Thinking Back on Expectations of New Music
“This is the new sound / just like the old sound” – Rage Against the Machine, “Ashes In the Fall”
I felt old this morning. On my Instagram feed someone made note that 17 years ago today, Rage Against the Machine released their third album, The Battle of Los Angeles. And for some reason that made me feel old.
It’s not that I’m generally one to “feel old” when I’m reminded of such anniversaries or stretches of time. I didn’t even feel this way a few months ago when I realized that 2016 was also the twentieth anniversary of Rage’s Evil Empire album. And considering just how much that album means to me, it seems all the more odd.
Maybe it’s a millennium thing, connecting to my own sense of adulthood – I turned 18 in 2000, less than a year after The Battle of Los Angeles came out. Back in 1996, meanwhile, I was still in highschool, feeling trapped in that social eternity of adolescence and confusion. Once out of school, once an adult, one’s sense time shifts, moves faster. They notion of “It feels like just yesterday…” seems stronger. And so it feels like just yesterday that Rage’s ’99 album came out. And so I feel old.
The Battle of Los Angeles, and 1999 in general, also marked a decided turning point in how I perceived music. New music, specifically. From the years 1995 to 1998, all music was new to me. I took it in slowly, with bewildered eyes and ears. This was a time when I only had 4 radio stations, 2 music video channels, and only so much money to spend in music stores. And the internet was dial-up and limited, far from the light-speed, streaming media orgy it is today. In short, whenever I discovered music, I had all the time in the world to take it in and make it a part of me.
Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire was one of maybe 30 albums I owned by 1999. And I loved that CD. More than that, I loved the band. They were a heavy bond between me and my best friend of the time. I had their self-titled 1992 opener, and their Live and Rare compilation. I had their home video; I had t-shirts; I scoured the then-text-and-picture based web for information; I cut out articles from Rolling Stone. I wrote an essay on them for school. I listened to and sang along to and rocked out with their music constantly. And I wanted more.
With great desire comes great expectation. And unconsciously, unrealistically, unfairly, I expected much from the band. As my teenage months that felt like years rolled on, I continued to soak myself in Rage’s first two albums, enraptured in the groove-infused rap metal and socio-political lyrics. I loved it all, and I wanted more.
But we don’t always know what we mean when we want more of something. When something means so much to us, we so often don’t realize that it’s not just the music or the food or the lover that makes us happy. It’s the collective experience of that time and place and action. It’s the newness of that experience that makes it special, especially during our formative teen years. When we listen back to a special album, it’s not merely the music that makes us feel good, but rather how it reminds us of the time and place that we first fell in love. And that is what we want more of. That overall feeling.
But we confuse it. Our desire gets mixed up with perceptions of just how to get that feeling anew. We think logically: “A) I love this album, B) This band made this album, C) Therefor, this band should be able to make another album that I will also love.” The most common example I hear in this regard is Metallica. Not being a Metallica fan, I don’t fully get it. The general perception I hear of the band – even from their most devoted fans – is that they fell off the tracks in 1996 with their Load album. Permanently. A decisive line was drawn: everything Metallica did before 1996 was good; everything from that point on was bad. Everything was held up to comparative standards of 1983’s Kill ‘Em All through to Metallica in 1991. The 90’s marked a huge shift in the sound of heavy music, and Metallica’s brand of speed metal was no different. Some of their fans just couldn’t handle it.
This has always bothered me. It has always seemed unfair to ask a band to not change their sound. And it’s a double-edged sword – people will just as readily resent a band for not changing. Not many artists are able to gradually progress and have a majority of their fanbase come along for the ride without confusion or antipathy. But some fanbases draw very steep lines between what they feel is the “true” sound of their favourite bands. And Metallica crossed that line for a lot of people. They were not able to walk the border between people saying, “Same old shit, they never grow,” and conversely saying, “This is too different.” Metallica has some very oldschool, hyper-passionate fans that hold onto the past, not realizing that it’s just that – the past – that they are holding onto, expecting a return to that experiential feeling rather than a simple sense of musical satisfaction.
And that’s how I felt about Rage Against the Machine (minus a refusal to accept new sounds). I loved (and still love) Evil Empire very, very dearly. I know all the words; I can play nearly the whole thing on drums; I have a tattoo of an image taken from one of the albums’ music videos. It’s a desert island album for me, one of a only few. It’s a time capsule archetype I would want future generations to take vital note of. And in the late 90’s it was a powerful, constant force in my CD player and in my heart. Needless to say, as the slow-motion days of highschool dragged on, I practically ached for new Rage Against the Machine.
They teased me. In 1997 they included with their home video a new CD single, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. It’s good, some strong, spaced out dynamics. But it was kind of underwhelming. Maybe it was the fact that the band didn’t write the song; maybe I didn’t get the point of the Grapes of Wrath-inspired lyrics. But maybe it was something else.
One year later – feeling more like five – I learned that the band had a new, original song coming on the soundtrack to the impending American remake of Godzilla. The soundtrack came out and was far more interesting than the film itself. And I enjoyed Rage’s “No Shelter” far more than “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. The new song felt more like the Rage I knew, the Rage I wanted. But did it quite live up to the Rage I expected? In the short term, yes. Aesthetically “No Shelter” does sound more like a track from Evil Empire than “Tom Joad” does. It matches the gritty texture and explosive emotion of that 1996 gem I held up as a standard without even knowing it.
But “No Shelter” was no album. I needed an album.
A year and a half later – a decade for a starving teenager – I got one. And I won’t pretend I didn’t feel somehow underwhelmed.
This is not a question of judging musical, songwriting quality. I try not to subscribe to thinking in terms of universally “good” versus “bad” music. It’s all taste; you like what you like. And at first… it’s not that I didn’t like The Battle of Los Angeles. But it did not hit me in the way I was hoping it would. In short, it did not live up to whatever expectations I held, consciously or unconsciously.
Unlike “No Shelter”, the album didn’t sound like Evil Empire. And to an extent, neither did the band, not entirely. By all means were they still Rage Against the Machine – in spades were they still the same band. The dynamics pulsed and erupted, the guitar and bass were imaginative, and Zack de la Rocha brought an impassioned, informed and emotive lyrical delivery. But something wasn’t quite right.
It was different. But not even by leaps and bounds – it was just different enough to confound my expectations. It was still inherently “Rage Against the Machine”. In retrospect it sounds like a fairly even blend of their first and second albums, but with new approaches and results as well. But back in 1999 it just was not Evil Empire. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was not giving me the same feeling of a new, raw, and decidedly youthful experience in the same way that Evil Empire did.
And so to underlying degrees I held this against The Battle of Los Angeles. With a burgeoning maturity, for better or worse, I was able to take a step back and actually recognize the differences. Unfortunately, rather than simply taking in those differences and appreciating the album for what it was – something new, valid, and ultimately enjoyable – I had a hard time listening to it. But also not. It was a tug-of-war between my emotional expectations and the undeniable qualities of the new album. Those qualities simply took longer to mine out and appreciate. It took me a good five years to fully appreciate that album.
Was it unfair of me to hold The Battle of Los Angeles up to my expectative standards of Evil Empire? Not really. Because it was not a conscious thing. I didn’t mean to – and certainly didn’t want to – hold onto the past, to draw comparisons. But whether I knew it or not, I did. And I would do the same with other new albums around the same time. I would experience the same comparative quasi-disappointment with Deftones went from 1997’s Around the Fur to 2000’s White Pony. When Weezer went from 1996’s Pinkerton to 2001’s (Green Album). When Slipknot went from 1999’s Slipknot to 2001’s Iowa and yet again to 2004’s Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses). Thankfully I came to appreciate some of these albums, but regardless.
A common theme across these advancements was, to my ears, a departure from far more raw, textured sounds and emotive expressions. They were albums that sounded cleaner, more polished and digital, with only handfuls of calls back to how the bands used to sound. And sometimes those calls sounded desperate and patronizing. Patronizing not to the listeners (hopefully), but to the artists themselves.
Perhaps this was my own sense of expectation being reflected back upon me. More than that, the disappointment thereof in not being able to recapture the past. I can only imagine being one of these artists, having poured heart and soul into an earlier creation. Then time passes, a new album is slated for production, and it just doesn’t feel the same when you make it. As an artist, a part of you wants to recapture the impassioned feeling of that first or second album. But sometimes you can’t get it back, because quite simply you are not the same person in the same time experiencing the same things. You might have screamed your face off in your old songs, but that drive, that visceral, youthful need to scream has, to a degree, faded.
But this doesn’t mean that a removal from the past means a pointlessness of the present, or the future. The Battle of Los Angeles was absolutely not Evil Empire. And nor should it be. Who knows how much more disappointed I would have felt had the two albums sounded effectively the same? In fact, how would I have felt if the year 1999 itself were the same as 1996? Pretty miserable, to be honest. For all the amazing things that came into my life from ’96 through ’98, it was also an incredibly bad era for me emotionally. And 1999 was a turning point, if only by way of maturity. The slow-motion, tortuous fog of adolescence was lifting, graduation only a year away. I was escaping; I was moving on. I was growing. As was Rage Against the Machine. As it should be.
While writing this I listened back on The Battle of Los Angeles. Twice. And it filled me with the same dynamic enjoyment as it always has (minus singing/screaming along and headbanging – I am typing, after all). Now I’m debating putting on Evil Empire. Not for a nostalgic trip, so much as an experiment. A conscious exploration of how it would make me feel. Or maybe I shouldn’t treat it that way. Maybe I should just let the music play. Just enjoy it for what it is, not for what it represents in terms of my past. As nostalgic a person as I am, I like to think I’m not the sort to put an album on because “it takes me back to the good ol’ days.” By all means is it fun to revisit old music. It’s fun to revisit old feelings too – if you can achieve it. But you don’t want to get too carried away with the old, not at the expense of the new.
You don’t want to set the nostalgic bar too high.
© 2016 Andrew Hall Writes