Nostalgia is complicated. For a long time, I considered it entirely negatively perhaps because of the way it is used to fetishize a mythical glorious past. There is an essential superiority to that. An affirmation that things were so much better before and that there is no hope now. The resignation of this and the impotent anger and frustration that accompanies it is as sad as it is untrue. It even veers into tyranny when used as propaganda by those who are annoyed that the world of their youth that seemed so simple and full of choices is a lot more complicated, compromised, and disappointing.
Truthfully though, we all possess a certain amount of nostalgia within us, and I realise now that this is not necessarily a bad thing. In small amounts, it is a soother for lost souls. A means of escape and protection from our troubles. Even though it can never be a means to fix our problems, it can put us in a better place to be able to face them.
‘Transistor Radio’ by M. Ward is a beautiful example of this. There is a duality at work within its sounds and lyrical content that complement and contradict each other in ways that offer comfort and, some, resolution. The surface level of sound is a throwback to another time of pops and crackles, distortion, and white noise that by the time of the record’s release in 2005 had been largely replaced by shiny surface sounds as clinical and cold as the compact discs they were played on. This makes the name of the record the least subtle thing about it, and yet it works to reveal the concept underpinning the songs. A retreat to the sounds of the past, a protective blanket of the sort we all sometimes need when we are at our most vulnerable. The sound is warm and cozy, offering the listener the best nostalgia can offer by providing comfort or understanding without the complications of the present or the vulnerabilities that are within us.
Touches of country and rock run through the record and Ward’s voice and vocal phrasing suits the sound and the mood not by being otherworldly so much as seeming from another age altogether. It is in the songs though that the depth of the record is revealed. They are brief, simple and with elegantly unusual melodic constructions that still find a way to address the issues their sound seeks to avoid.
These are songs rooted in escape. ‘Come back, come back my little piece of mind,’ Ward sings on ‘Radio Campaign’ while ‘Four Hours from Washington’ deals directly with anxiety and insomnia (‘Now it’s five in the morning and I’m wishing it was one’) but there is no resignation in any of this. In the end it is a record about finding a way back. Strength seems to be found in acknowledging both the need to escape and the need to carry on.
There is a fundamental truth to this. Sometimes we do need to retreat and escape, at others to confront and sometimes by retreating we can show ourselves the best way forward as we engage again with the person we are at our core. The person we once were cannot entirely leave us even if our troubles and our lives have left parts of us diminished. If we didn’t remember or think that then we wouldn’t have the urge to indulge our nostalgia because, deep down, we know the world has only changed as much as we have. That doesn’t have to be the end of the story though. While we’re still here there is always time to remember the best of who we are and that might be the best kind of nostalgia of all. This is the kind of nostalgia that ‘Transistor Radio’ offers us, not so we can wallow in our escape but more to use as a soundtrack to take us forward.