Album Review: Snail Mail – Valentine

[Matador; 2021]

Who would have thought that the big bad bogeyman of the past 10 years would shape up to be nostalgia? Be it via the desire to return to the political status quo of the Reagan era or the return of beloved cultural franchise figures, society as a whole seems unable to let go, which feels like some sort of cannibalist exercise. To put it in the words of Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox: “I used to find nostalgia to be pretty. But I think culturally speaking it’s the worst thing right now. The more we live in the past, the more the present and future decay.”

Digest that for a minute, and think back to how Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” and later Mark Fisher situated current day people in some sort of eternal stasis, where a bubble of constant liberalism forces them into a spectator role that, ultimately, only allows them to reflect on surroundings instead of engage directly with them. This leads to what Fisher calls the ‘nostalgia of the future’, a concept firmly rooted in his definition of Hauntology and which he often explained via our desire for specific types of music: “hauntological music is often accused of being nostalgic. To a certain extent this is true, but the point is: ‘nostalgic compared to what?’ I mean, the whole 21st century music scene could be described as nostalgic: where is the sense of the future now? Today, if you ask people what is ‘futuristic music’, they would reply electronic music from the 90s, or even Kraftwerk, and stuff like that. In a way, we still rely on an old future.”

While listening to Valentine, the new album by indie rock sensation Lindsey Jordan aka Snail Mail, the term of nostalgia comes up in constant waves, almost permeating the record’s unconscious, leading to some rather unpleasant questions that reach beyond the usual consumption of pop. Much like the artist’s debut Lush, here is an album bathed in the sound of the 1990s, but where its predecessor reached right back to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Mellon Collie… and Whip Smart, Valentine’s nostalgia is of a more complex nature.

Take “Ben Franklin”, which resembles the Pumpkins of last year’s Cyr, or “Headlock”, which sounds more like a cut off Corgan’s misunderstood Teargarden by Kaleidyscope release cycle. Add to that the fact that Jordan’s voice has drastically changed in the years since Lush and now resembles Courtney Love at her most weary and strung out, and it becomes clear that things are more off kilter and harder to define with generic music critic terminology.

Coming just a month after Poppy’s equally nostalgic Flux, Valentine isn’t about refocusing 90s pop nostalgia to embrace emancipation – in fact, it’s the total opposite: it’s about the loss of possibility and the fear of a new future too haunted to let go of the personal past. So yeah: this is about heartbreak, but unlike Lush, it’s not about strength at all. Where that album had a defiant (back in the 90s, it would have been called ‘bratty’) tone and ironic detachment, its follow-up is deeply broken.

A good example of this is the sense of pain in Jordan’s voice, which is more frail and raspy than on previous recordings. It often breaks, with the lyrics at times slurred and sung quietly under her breath where she previously sang them out at full force of her lungs. And some of the lyrics here are alarmingly frank and bleak, such as on “Headlock”: “Man enough to see this through / Man, I’m nothing without you / Thought I’d see her when I died / Filled the bath up with warm water / Nothing on the other side,” or on quiet ballad “Light Blue”, where she ends the song with “Nothing’s gonna stop me now / I’m not going back”.

Even with the distance of fiction, the lyrics cut deep when paralleled by the news that following a bad breakup, Jordan spent a few months in treatment prior to recording the album in the spring of this year. Sure, unfulfilled love cuts painfully deep, especially because it highlights an impossible future which becomes a constantly reshaped present, as highlighted by the lines “I’ve come to hate my body / ‘Cause now it’s not yours / Now it’s not mine” on “Madonna”.

But then there’s also the theme of fame and drugs poisoning the mind. “Glory” – a standout track somewhere between “1979”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Malibu” – resurrects the spectres of Hollywood Boulevard and prominently uses the term “superstar”, which holds meaning in the context of the 90s’ obsession with failed celebrities and fucked up glamour: “You wanna make it hurt, superstar / When you take too much in the bathroom”. And, speaking of drugs, the theme of alcohol as a conductor to unite Jordan with her partner or her spectre is another image repeated throughout Valentine: “One more drink ‘till / I can feel you” (“Automate”) – “When it gets cold / We’ll move to Malibu / Where the drinks are hard / you make em’ go down smooth” (“Glory”) – “Drinking just to taste her mouth / Got you drifting in and out” (“Headlock”).

Of course, Valentine isn’t the first album that presents pleasant indie pop to transport dark themes – that’s been a staple of the genre ever since its genesis. But the sheer abandon and cracked nature visible in Jordan’s performance contrasts the hip Tears for Fears vibe of tracks like “Forever (Sailing)” and the comfortable embrace of the quiet solo performance “c. et al.”. Closer “Mia” at least provides a little bit of comfort, with Jordan’s protagonist moving on emotionally, but then she confronts the listener with the insight that Mia is now in the arms of a boy, expressing the queer angst that bubbles below the surface of the record, before finally returning to the same nostalgia for an impossible future with somebody else: “Lost love so strange / And heaven’s not real, babe / Well I wish that I could lay down next to you.”

Valentine is caught in a strange haze. It’s an album that positions itself constantly looking back, aesthetically and emotionally. Mia remains elusive, an idea more than a real person, and the actions of the protagonist tear down what little is left of their physical strength and form. In this destructive act, Jordan finds both truth and a pathos which, musically, expresses itself in aforementioned Corgan-isms, which is ironic especially considering how much most of it sounds like the ‘uncool’ Corgan, whose personal growth as an artist annoyed so many of his fans.

And therein lies what could be Valentine’s weakness: while it has quite a few tracks that stand out, besides the glamorous opener, due to their use of pathos-laden synthesizer hooks (“Ben Franklin”, “Headlock”) and moody refrains (“Glory”, “Automate”), the gentle ballads and groovy mid-tempo tracks that make up the album’s second act don’t seem as stylized or aggressively emotional musically as their lyrics demand. “Madonna” feels a little like a B-side off of Adore and “Forever (Sailing)” comes across a little too conscious of its hip yacht rock aesthetic, which is still a compliment for both, but the section could lead listeners to lose focus.

And that’s where the trouble with nostalgia rushes in: all notions of the present and hopes for the future are reframed by the conception of what could be reflected through the splintered mirror of a past that never was. Mia remains foggy, the nature of what was lost out of reach. When we get so much as glimpses, it’s ugly images of empty whiskey glasses and cocaine stains on black bathroom tiles – the cherry coke and sharpie-decorated chucks of Lush are gone forever. Heartbreak is lasting and reconfigures the cold reality, where anger leads to hate of oneself and those-who-are-not-them and only substances can somehow glaze over this loss.

Now 22, Jordan is out of rehab and has recorded an album that struggles with emotions that many of her listeners will have experienced for the majority of their lives. It’s only logical that the album resulting from all this turmoil – and in her case also aided by the queer desire of belonging in a world that constantly plays by different rules – is itself unable to resolve all this negativity and rise above it. It never bursts, like Lush did, but stumbles and swings, begs and borrows. Nothing about it is ironic, because it anxiously glances over its shoulder to, somehow, find something in the past that has been lost and maybe never existed.

That’s the worst about heartbreak: to realize that the past will always outlive the future. But in sharing this, Jordan also allows for a safe haven. Coming in an era of stark political statements, post-punk irony and metallic confrontation with the inner shadow, this drunk and sensitive record takes in the freaks and loners, those whose emotions reflect their perspective in a world that doesn’t care for them.