“One ceases to find pleasure in pleasure. Things live on in nostalgia, and their echo becomes that of a previous life.” — Jean Baudrillard
There is something intrinsically 90s about the summer. I cannot qualify that statement with anything beyond vibes. Maybe it’s because it was a period when the Cold War was over and (arguably erroneously — again “vibes based”) there was at last hope for a brighter future. The second summer of love had bought us back to the land to gather in fields and collectively fill our heads with repetitive beats and plentiful substances. Maybe it’s because, for me at least, it was the time I was becoming a person of conscious age with school holidays full of promise that seemed to stretch out into eternity. Maybe it’s an amalgamation of all these things. Whatever it was, it feels that the current culture yearns for that forgotten time, when music was getting good again, economically we had more stability, TV was great, optimism was an emotion you could readily experience.
With this in mind, I’m certain in as much as I can be certain of anything, that I’m not the only one who sees an inextricable link between shoegaze, that most 90s of 90s genres, and summer. It came to me as an extremely young but culturally hungry person in a mishmash with various other music I would come to love through the TV; the Chart Show, Top of the Pops, alternative shows on Radio 1 and through staying up too late and sneakily watching the likes of The Word and The White Room (sorry mum). Existing in my head is a montage of videos for songs like The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds, Blur’s She’s So High, Ride’s Vapour Trail and Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness, all with dreamy ethereal graphics and scenes of the outdoors (the latter being filmed at the long lost and much loved Tribal Gathering festival).
Shoegaze, as much as electronic music, is as much a part of the British summertime as swifts, strawberries and accidental sunburn. Gentle yet heady, dreamy synths and delayed soundscapes of distorted guitars conjure images of lush greenery, big skies and the promise of long afternoons outside doing very much of very little with a big bag of cans. When stuck at work, either in an over air-conditioned office or in whatever your makeshift working from home space looks like, and staring at the world outside at this time of year, all heavy with sunshine and promise, has a specific type of allure that’s hard to quantify. This, I think, is at the root of the appeal of Slowdive’s sophomore album Souvlaki, released almost exactly 30 years ago in May 1993.
There are albums you could call passageways, transportation links from one movement in music to the next or a life of a band to its next evolution. Souvlaki is a culmination of forms from post punk and early indie to what could come next. Much like a nostalgic idea of summerness one grasps at as soon as it’s over, it’s an album that is out of place. Released after the death of grunge and with Britpop already taking hold of indie (just 2 months earlier, Suede has released their dynamite self titled debut), no one really wanted or cared for what Slowdive were offering. It was widely dismissed as missing the mark by critics; Dave Simpson of the Melody Maker summed up the mood in his review saying “I would rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again.”
Creation label boss Alan McGee didn’t care for what he heard in sessions and was clearly much more excited about his brand spanking new signing, a little band of Mancunian upstarts called Oasis. Slowdive had courted Brian Eno to produce it and he had spent time in the studio with them in their early sessions, leading the band’s chief songwriter Neil Halstead to seek influence away from guitar music and towards ambient and dub. This collision of genres can be felt in the texture of the album, elevating their earlier work from being another guitar band who listened to too much Jesus & Mary Chain, to something that feels fresh even now. You can hear the work of Eno with Bowie on his Berlin albums, the muffled cold dub of early post punk, particularly Bauhaus, the soundscapes of pioneers like John Cage, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Suzanne Ciani.
But it’s more than the lush richness of the sound that makes Souvlaki the treasure that it is, an album panned in its day but reappraised within the last 10 years as not only one of the genre-defining albums of the shoegaze period but also highly influential to what came after. As an album out of it’s own time yet somehow reminding of the time it was made, it embodies the idea of simulation and hyperreality; it embodies a sense of nostalgia for a lost time which it never embodied in the first place. It is a signifier of its period that it can’t represent due to its inability to be embraced in 1993 for being too out of step with the zeitgeist. Maybe this sense of out of timeness is what speaks to those who love it.
The vibe of the album itself is steeped in the mood of different kind of aching nostalgia. Halstead penned much of the album after a break up with the band’s guitarist Rachel Goswell. After the initial sessions with Eno, he locked himself away to brood on his heartbreak in a remote cottage in Wales, listening to Bowie’s Low and Aphex Twin. Despite Souvlaki’s soaring soundscape, there is a downbeat yearning quality that permeates every movement and chord progression, particularly in songs like Alison, Here She Comes and When The Sun Hits (my personal favourite) where you can sense palpable emotional pain. It gives the warm softness of the sound an edge of exquisite suffering; you can feel the pining for things that are long gone and are now forever out of reach.
Slowdive managed to create an album that belongs nowhere yet signifies somewhere about longing for something that no longer exists, and this in my opinion is why it is so evocative. There is much to be said for society and culture’s perpetual urge to look backwards with rose-tinted spectacles and what that means, but that’s a topic too large and sprawling to discuss here. Postmodernist academic Professor Linda Hutcheon wrote that nostalgia “exiles us from the present as it brings the imagined past near. The simple, pure, ordered, easy, beautiful or harmonious past is constructed (and then experienced emotionally) in conjunction with the present, which, in turn, is constructed as complicated, contaminated, anarchic, difficult, ugly and confrontational.”
The 90s was a time where everything felt possible, where the future meant something more than just a rolling news cycle of social, economic and ecological disintegration. For me, it was a time before the drudgery of normal adult life and all its frustrations and disappointments became a lived reality.
The summer, a real summer beyond the terror of covid, where every park carries the possibility of too much sun, good times, friendship, fun, feels like recapturing a sliver of that lost past, even if only on the odd day. Souvlaki in its sound and mood, a weird crossroads moment in indie music, a picture postcard simulacra of a period it doesn’t symbolise, sounds like and is like the summer; a thing we try our hardest to grasp on to, hold it close to our hearts, taking every opportunity to enjoy its bounty before it evaporates in front of our eyes and is then only a memory, forever lost in the past.