Tracing the Map Backward

Alexandra Reinecke, Art and Literature Editor

Especially given the outcome of the recent election, and following a long history of sexist and racist invocations, “nostalgia” has been a dirty word.

Suspending political connotations and societal judgements for a minute, however, I’d like to take the sound and run with it. That is, I’d like to run with a pair of white headphones in hand, all the way back to the simple brick and snow childhood conjured by songs composed long after I left the East Coast.

While Vampire Weekend’s Boston-area pop holds none the idealogical power of other music from the area, such as Chester, or The Congress, as far as I’m concerned, the moody, cutting verse of the upbeat but depressed “Walcott” or the endearing pain of “Contra” might as well be the Star Spangled Banner for all its spirit.

While music reviews are usually reserved to new music, I’d like to make a recommendation: a reminiscence of a reminiscence, which is exactly what Vampire Weekend’s first album, the self-titled Vampire Weekend has been for me this past fall. The album includes 11 tracks, among which float titles invocative of a familiar New England, “Mansard Roof,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Campus” among them.

When I was a child in Westchester we use to roll around with the convertible roof down; a neat, black convertible with tight glossy sides and a weather-warried cover. There were baseball caps tucked in the envelope leather pockets behind the seats, and I think it is for the proportions of the back seat, the cramped space, the tunnel sound of the wind, the texture of strands of my own hair whipping back at me, that I’ll always see the gates of the Rockefeller estate eclipsed by brown, sun-slanted strands, the great mossy stones punctured by lines like straw under a microscope, or the kind of flecks that dirty the footage of warfare circa 1926.

This scene, seemingly lost, is brought back as easily to me as plates of splintery hashbrowns bring back Irish dinners, or the cups of cider at William Sonoma, Walnut Creek conjure past Thanksgivings, or how the real sheep which stare out of Burberry spread ads remind me of the stuffed ones we rode at the Westchester Mall, the leftmost of which behind whose ear my sister pressed a mint-flavored Origins gum drop the color of chalk.

The lyrics responsible for my relocation are simple, sparse, capturing not the actual roofing of the infamous Kykuit and its surrounding granite waves of doors and fences, which is in a Neoclassical and not an English Manor style, but the sounds “I see a mansard roof through the trees / I see a salty message written in the eaves” bring back all the same architecture, the straining of necks, the pointing.

Eerily enough, beyond the looking for spires among foliage, whose resemblance to these convertible rides is enough astounding, the chorus continues into description of “The hot garbage and concrete / And now the tops of buildings, I can see them too” which unintentionally pinpoints the hot summer days stretched along the adjacent rivertown’s Main Street, where bins of trash rot outside the 7-11 and where the condescending triangles of Victorian homes the color of oysters nod from the hills.

Their fast-paced hit “A-Punk,” the song for which they are perhaps best known, brings the same Northeastern connotations. “Joanna drove slowly into the city” sings the strangely-voiced and impeccably well-dressed Ezra Keoeing, a Manhattan Native. His low but melodic voice delves into describing “the Hudson River all filled with snow,” painting the image of a childhood alarmingly co-terminal with my own. The white and gray river imagery aside, the lyrics delve even deeper into personal connections, touching the so-called cancer world of my mother’s consulting when the smooth chorus dips into “the Young Men’s Wing at Sloan Kettering,” a known cancer center in Manhattan whose name I’ve seen emblazed across the spines of pens, notepads, shitty little speaker clips stashed in the pen drawer.

As the album continues, the similarities grow thicker. I wonder momentarily why comparing 2 experiences, or 2 anythings for that matter, seems to follow the same arc of motion as does paranoia, ever increasing, ever steeped with that fragile feeling of unreality, of going to crack. In “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” more similarities arise: mention of a “young girl” seeking “Louis Vuitton,” paralleling my brief 5th grade stint of allotting $750 for an overpriced brown leather bucket bag, the “colors of Bennetton” from a first pair of adult jeans, mustard yellow, and mention of “Peter Gabriel too” bringing back the image of “Games Without Frontiers” played in spitting rain on a drive to school, in my father’s BMW, the eerie sounds of the interspersed French: Jeux sans frontieres, Jeux sans frontieres. 

Without frontiers, indeed, for the similarities continue in the band’s “M79” where a mellow chorus taunts “Wasted days you’ve come to pass” and fleets of “pollination yellow cab[s]” like Polaroids of my youth falling square after square onto a distant carpet “the Buddha on the second floor,” which guards my father’s desk, an instruction, oft spoken by my mother to “dress yourself in bleeding madras,” or the blue and white squared J-Crew peasant top which comprised two weeks of wear, 2015 July, or the note of a “step along the arch of glass” which was the bridge out in Upstate, glass bottomed over the Hudson, where we ate sharp triangles of bread like the plexiglass blocks my babysitting kids use for construction.

These parallels of Keoeing’s life chase me around the arch of wrapped headphones, in and out of the pocket of my North Face backpack, where the cover of their album, a blue-lit WASP-y face expresses dissatisfaction at having been buried among highlighters and pens, loose change, half a stick of cinnamon Trident. The WASP-y face stares thin-lipped at me from the screen while Keoeing sings of “collegiate grief” having left me “dowdy in sweatshirts,” an apparent dig at my pilled Princeton sweatshirt, and of things lost to me: “lobster’s claw” which rages in its red case “sharp on knives,” the cobalt-ribbon winning athleticism of those YMCA afternoons in which I swum a “devastating backstroke,” an old scene from North by Northwest conjured by the line “Why would you tape my conversations? Show your paintings / At the United Nations.”

The image of this shot man, an image eclipsed by half of Cary Grant’s defined and squarish jaw, startled ear, settles as Keoeing belts out the lyrics of the following chorus: “The kids don’t stand a chance. The kids don’t stand a chance” and as I understand the presence of the similarly-hard working students beside me, each in their respective college sweatshirts, each in their respective exhausted disarray. The words seem overwhelmingly true, just as eerie as those foreign sounds earlier borrowed by the French: Jeux sans frontieres, Jeux sans frontieres. 

All these tangent images of 2 Northeastern existences, Keoeing’s and my own, culminate in his song “Campus” where he describes, almost to a T, the scene set before me the day I toured Princeton this past July: “In the afternoon / You’re out on the stone and grass / and I’m sleeping” dreaming, dreaming, dreaming along a dozen, a hundred similar such college-hopefuls tucked into the butter bourbon plywood of the Campolindo library study corrals, placating myself with an illusion which that afternoon had replaced the old quilted connotation pieced of Google Image favorites and became to me alarmingly solid, like a cooke crystallized in cup holder, or the Williams College towel which made a white and pale purple terrycloth fossil in the back of my locker when I was busy doing laps in sophomore P.E.

But as much as Keoeing has reinforced the image of where I want to go, he has done me the ultimate service, too, in distracting me from the weights of such a goal: the dips and loops and quivers and shouts of his dark, melodic, all-too-familiarly New England tone have returned me to that simple drive, to the pleasure of watching strands of hair whip before my eyes, oat colored beneath the sun’s harsh scrutiny. And that’s where I am, though I’m in the library corral, or mentally traversing the gothic grounds at Princeton, or remembering the scene in North by Northwest as a slim man in a dark suit falls dead in the lobby of the United Nations: tracing the map back to the origin, finding the music to substantiate the childhood snapshots.

Yes, I may be steeped in physics projectiles, or drowning in the curves of periodic functions, but momentarily, beside the thin-lipped scrutiny of their first album’s WASP-y face, surrounded by the deep sounds and alliteration of Keoeing’s choruses I’m returned, out staring at dead bridges and a mossy lake where we once ate raspberries from thorns, out at a silver-windowed lighthouse, or a strongly-pungent coffee house whose door is held open by the bronze statue of a labrador, a haunt Keoeing, who defines himself “Irish and proud” might once also have frequented.

Maybe we’d talk about the MetroNorth schedule if I met him, how there’s a faulty ticketing process, or how the native Westchester I once felt territorial at having discovered in Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned” is now a place I’d like to share, with him, with others, like the glossy postcard of a wonder-place. Maybe I’d tell him how I’ve discovered a kind of reprieve in this fact that things must be shared, that places don’t belong to people, a kind of reprieve his words have brought me in delivering my hometown back to me.

If we were to meet, at the origin, I think I’d say something rather stupid, such as: “Here’s my pair of topsiders, co-native.” Or “I liked your description of salmon-pink in the short story which Buzzfeed unearthed from your college days.” Or maybe, rather than talk, I’d hum the tune to “Walcott.” Likely, I’d look out at the basin of our shared Hudson River and say nothing at all.