Nostalgia is often a profoundly personal kind of wistfulness. A Proustian moment, after all, relies on our senses to stimulate deeply idiosyncratic memories. But there are times where nostalgia becomes a runaway meme, infecting a whole generation for decades at a time, and, as much as we would like to forget, there was a period of time in the early 21st century where we were all nostalgic for the eighties. Not only were we inundated with VH1’s nostalgia porn, but a slew of bands that were aping early eighties new wave (from Futureheads to Interpol to Hot Hot Heat) came out like a stampeding herd. Many of these bands were kind enough to move away from their eighties sound in a gambit for a larger audience which in turn allowed us to forget the indignity of once showing up to a party dressed like Ralph Maccio. Wolf Parade, who initially built their sound on bouncy keyboards, might have been lumped in with the new wave of new wave bands until their sophomore album, At Mount Zoomer, put those associations behind them. It is strange, then, that they have opted to trade in on nostalgia once again for their third album, Expo 86.
The album’s title is a reference to the 1986 World’s Fair held in Wolf Parade’s home country of Canada, and the album art is flanked on the front and back by children mugging for the camera in color washed Transformers-the-cartoon era photographs. This is a great example of how the entire album, from artwork to liner notes to the music itself, impacts how we listen to the music. The themes of nostalgia and childhood might not strike those who bought the mp3 version of the album as heavily as those who own the physical copy. The cover art might prepare the listener for Wolf Parade’s return to some of the aesthetics of their first album. While At Mount Zoomer dispensed with the keyboards filtered through a circuit board in favor of much a cleaner plucking sound of ivories, Expo 86 has brought back a more synthetic sound that harkens back to when the photograph of the front cover were taken.
In addition to an aesthetic return, the lyrics are full of longing for the past. The most obvious song to trade in on nostalgia is the Dan Boeckner penned song “Little Golden Age.” In addition to the song title, the lyrics speak to the pull of the past and the intersection between music and our adolescence: “Then you left town feeling pretty down / With your headphones and your coat and your dirty graduation gown you were / In the bedroom singing radio songs.” Much has been made of the difference between Boeckner and Krug’s songwriting. Often Krug has been represented as the more experimental and abstract artist while Boeckner has been described as the more conventional musician more concerned with traditional pop songs. This dichotomy isn’t accurate exactly, but here Boeckner’s more grounded lyrics become one of the strengths of the album. It’s his songs that thematically guide most of Expo 86. “Ghost Pressure,” a song whose very title invokes the idea of a lingering past, recounts a lover’s kiss on the suitably suburban sounding street of “Orchard road” while the song “Palm Road” (a theme is forming) is propelled by the driving beat of Springsteenian drums to summon the spirit of a teenage road trip. These songs are the bricks that build the foundation of Expo 86 and ensure that, despite the divergent personality of the two principle songwriters, this latest release by Wolf Parade is more than just a collection of disparate songs, but rather a cohesive work of art from start to finish.
If At Mount Zoomer was characterized by songs that took their time getting to their particular destination, then Expo 86 can be described as a work that goes straight for the jugular. The songs have an energy that can be exhaustive. This newfound concern with grabbing the listener by the lapels and yelling in his or her face is reinforced by the production, which, unfortunately, pushes every instrument to the top of the mix. There isn’t even a palate cleanser like “Fine Young Cannibals” or “Dinner Bells.” The result is a lack of dynamics. Fortunately, the strength of Wolf Parade’s songwriting manages to push through these slight problems. Expo 86 is proof that Wolf Parade is more than just some Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown songs thrown on a single album. Instead, it is a find example of how two artists can cause an indelible impression on the other.