Somewhere on an old Motorola that has since been recycled, there is a very low quality picture of me and my late-teens boyfriend sitting in a Starbucks inside Borders in the same pair of Topshop super-spray-on skinny jeans, which we paired with thin scarves and pointless cardigans. We spent a lot of time there pretending to be 17-year-olds who enjoyed black coffee because it was the only place that sold the short-lived indie arts magazine Plan B founded by Everett True; we'd read it cover to cover before cutting out all the illustrations in the back and repurposing them as mixtape artwork.
This is not an image that has much of a place in 2017. There may still be reminders floating around in the form of a frankly hilarious cartoon about Crass I still have stuck on my vinyl shelves, but otherwise none of the above are things that make sense in the world as it is today. For better or worse, Borders is gone, Plan B folded and combat trousers are everywhere. Indie—in the most generalized sense of the word that exists outside of Camden—no longer has the cultural clout it used to. In the politically tense times of today, people want the visceral rage of Beyoncé stomping through water to "Freedom" in front of flamethrowers while Kendrick Lamar spits about racial discrimination, not Death Cab For Cutie gently whispering about Donald Trump's finances over acoustic plucking.
And yet—and yet—I definitely, just on Tuesday, watched The Shins perform their first new single in five years on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I definitely got a press release about Broken Social Scene doing full-blown tours again with a new album on the way, after trickling back into action via a spattering of festival appearances. Someone definitely put Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on the office overheads the other day, and their fifth album The Tourist came out two weeks ago. Land Of Talk announced their first full-length since 2010's Cloak and Cipher in February, Feist announced her first album since 2011's Metals this week, Solange has a co-write on the new Dirty Projectors album and The New Pornographers are also in the blog news. So… What gives? In the immortal words of Robin Williams in Jumanji: What year is it?
The year is 2017 and indie is back, basically, is what's happening—and so far it sounds exactly like it did 15 years ago. Obviously, like any group of artists loosely lumped into a genre, it never "went anywhere," but it definitely seems to be having a moment. Bands that haven't been touring, releasing music or existing in the forefront of people's minds since the flip-phone era are now getting positive reviews on Pitchfork and headlining Alexandra Palace. The question isn't how; most of the 00s indie bands still on major labels, as Evan Rytlewski points out in his review of The Shins' latest Heartworms, have "survived by staying the course" and "largely resisted trends or any temptation to drift too far from his established sweet spot" so there is almost always a guaranteed, pre-established fan base ready to embrace their favourite familiar sound. The question is, why now?
We are a far cry from the innocence of 2004 in which Natalie Portman could turn to Zach Braff and say, with any semblance of conviction, that listening to a track from Chutes Too Narrow will "change your life." Iconic as it is, I'm not convinced that if The Shins were starting out today they would enjoy the same success with an album that opens with six claps and a "woo!" Last month, Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth started what I'm going to politely call "a conversation" about whether or not 2009 was indie rock's last truly progressive year by posting a note to Instagram denouncing the current condition of the genre as "both bad and boujee." Bad meaning manufactured and "musically underwhelming", boujee meaning "removed from the raindrops and drop tops of lived, earned experience."
Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold—who is also releasing a solo album this year—responded by questioning what indie even is in 2017 anyway: Phil Elverum? Mac DeMarco? Car Seat Headrest? "I get bogged down in thinking there is a 'right' music to make at a given cultural moment," he wrote, "but to me there is a always a vast expanse of feeling being explored by everyone engaged in music and it's all valid in that it defines a feeling or creates a new one." Grizzly Bear's Ed Droste also entered the discussion on Instagram, contributing a screaming face emoji.
After much opining about whether Longstreth was dragging the hell out of indie rock on Twitter, Reddit, Guardian comments sections and everywhere else people who like Dirty Projectors hang out online, he then had to qualify that it was little more than "a jokey riff on fake critical theory language mixed with migos lyrics" and that he was "getting kinda navelgaze abt my band's context, wringing my hands over the way the term has been co-opted by wack spotify playlists, garageband presets etc." He has a point. Indie in 2017 feels a lot less tangible than it did eight years ago. All scenes/movements/certain styles of music grouped together will coalesce and derail over and over again—whether it's indie, grime or hardcore punk—with the commercial peak arriving and spurred on by the moment when things all happen at once. But the central question seems to be: does music have to be innovative for it to be relevant?
Pecknold uses Mount Eerie's "Real Death" as an example: "The newest Phil Elverum song *creates* a feeling that didn't exist before, even if it's musically not innovative, by virtue of it being a direct expression of his life experience that feels honest, and that one can either relate to or recognize as true," he says. And, for once in my life, I agree with a Fleet Fox; you either connect with something or you don't. The rest is semantics. Alex G isn't doing anything particularly groundbreaking, but the way he does things, his methods of communication, are what landed him on two Frank Ocean releases. Same goes for G.L.O.S.S. or Girlpool or Katy Perry. New? No. Good songs? Yes. For all the bombastic experimentation and interpretive dancing Sufjan Stevens spent the mid-to-late 00s toying with, Carrie & Lowell—an indie-folk album so minimal most songs are just his voice, a guitar and a keyboard—ended up being the best thing he's done in years. At the end of his existential crisis Longstreth eventually concludes that "novelty, newness is exciting and useful to reflect a changing world, but it seems like human experience/nature has a way of staying constant: for this, we don't need music that changes all the time; for this, tradition is valuable."
Guitars haven't been the main components of "modern sound" for years now. Anyone to survive on a mainstream level has had to adapt to some extent; Coldplay, Bring Me The Horizon—even Ed Sheeran, in all his guy-who-plays-at-your-local glory, has ventured into the realms of tropical house. Of course exposure has a lot to do with it. What's popular at any given time and what's actually good are two extremely different things. You may not hear a new cut from The Shins blasting out of a Nike advert anytime soon but that doesn't make it irrelevant either. At some point, most art boils down to a simple fact of taste. You either like it or you don't.
I listened to Heartworms and The Tourist, for posterity, and they are both good in my opinion. Heartworms is as summary and solipsistic as The Shins have ever been (Pitchfork gave it a 7.6, in case you're wondering), and The Tourist (7.5) is as weird and theatrical as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have ever been. The only thing that makes either of them less exciting is the fact they don't do much to expand on the innovations both artists brought to the table in the first place. James Mercer and Alec Ounsworth are creative centres of larger projects, not-quite-singer-songwriters consistently trying to figure out how to realize their ideas in ways beyond themselves—otherwise The Shins and CYHSY would be one man with a guitar, clapping. Incidentally they both happen to have extremely specific voices that: a) only work within certain confines and; b) are a large part of the reason why both bands have the spark they have at all. It's both a testament and a curse that you can't hear The Shins without wanting to turn off anything new and listen to Oh, Inverted World instead.
So, now that everyone's back, like a bunch of uni mates who went travelling but happen to be in the country for a house party you're having, what happens now? Are we all going to start wearing tunic tops with footless tights again? Will bands with horn sections dominate our festival stages? You could argue that the last thing the modern world needs is more white bearded men in their feelings and that's why you have people on Twitter cracking jokes about bands with "log cabin folk songs" arguing about what is and isn't "cutting edge" in 2017. But perhaps their place now is the same as it always has been; to be listened to quietly and alone, where their wider context matters much less than their emotional connection to you in that particular moment.
Personally I think bands like The Shins are destined for the same fate as 90s emo bands like Mineral, Braid, and American Football, which is: old time stans will pretty much always show up for it, casual fans probably won't bother and most first timers will go "whom?" and move right along, while others might find themselves intrigued. Somewhere within that Venn diagram is a small but valuable circle of people their new music will mean something to anyway. Sometimes it's nice—and necessary, now, amid the chaos that is the outside world—to sit at home with headphones on and reflect with some knackered artist who has been around for the same two decades of shit you have. "Name For You" is no "Bad and Boujee"—it is objectively one thousand times worse than "Bad and Boujee"—but as far as relevance is concerned it, like pretty much anything at least one person finds some solace in, has an expiry date of never.
You can find Emma on Twitter.
(Lead image of James Mercer via The Shins' official website)