On a Collection of Covers

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I.

My excitement for Luna’s new album—following their decade-long break—had admittedly waned when I found out it would be a series of covers. I started listening to Luna largely for the blend of spacey music and frontman Dean Wareham’s sharp lyrics. The band—which formed following the demise of Wareham’s previous project, Galaxie 500—saw Wareham trade his higher and earnest voice for a more deadpan persona. His lyrics, however, maintained that same looseness, existing somewhere between absurd and sincere—or as both at the same time.

Of course both Galaxie 500 and Luna have showcased Wareham’s affinity for covers. In Galaxie 500’s debut album, Today, the band set Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste” to the band’s classic style of dreamy guitar and droning rhythm, making the song a Galaxie 500 song as much as it was a Modern Lovers song. Since Today, Wareham’s covers have included Joy Division’s “Ceremony” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” with Galaxie 500, and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend” with Luna. So it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that Luna’s new album, A Sentimental Education, would be full of covers.

II.

What is most interesting about Wareham’s career, however, is definitely not his apparent love of covers, nor is it his role—for which he and Galaxie 500 are probably most famous—in the birth of dreampop music (though these are factors that make his music worth a listen). Rather, what strikes me about his career is how rich it is with cultural observations. More than that, his music and work functions as a reflection of society, told in lyrics and artistic gestures, painting a collage of the United States.

His body of work is peppered with references to art, music and cultural movements. Galaxie 500 captured the youth’s anxiety, apathy and disaffectedness during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, while Luna watched those youths age and delve into professional and personal relationships. His lyrics have drawn from such sources as David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart (“Bobby Peru”) and Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox (“Hedgehog”). The band Luna itself is almost an homage to the Velvet Underground, to whom much of Luna’s style is indebted—when I first heard Wareham’s vocals I was immediately reminded of Lou Reed.

 

 

 

 

III.

After reading Wareham’s memoir, Black Postcards, which chronicled his early life to Luna’s original breakup in 2005, I felt that same sense of cultural attentiveness that permeates his music. His prose reads much like his lyrics: it is teeming with wry comments, yet is at times heartfelt. It was his descriptions of himself, however, that were the most valuable in understanding Wareham’s music.

Wareham presents himself in a uniquely honest light. Liz Phair, for The New York Times Book Review, describes him as “a surprisingly unsympathetic character”—pointing to his drug use and infidelity during his musical success with both Luna and Galaxie 500. This assessment of Wareham is more than fair, but his portrayal isn’t altogether unsympathetic, at least not always. Instead, he comes off as self-aware. He writes about his experiences, sometimes ready to poke fun at himself, sometimes ready to apologize for his actions.

This self-awareness and honesty made reading about Wareham’s adolescence perhaps the most useful, at least in terms of understanding what his music is and does. He describes himself, as a teenager in New York, as one of the “part-time punks—private-school kids dressing up and something [they] were not” wearing “skinny ties and jackets with holes in them” to see concerts from punk and post-punk bands. He was someone who simply graduated from buying vinyls and attending shows to learning guitar and affecting a rock’n’roll style and attitude, inspired by and adapted from the artists that came before him.

IV.

Like a mirror reflecting back on itself, as Wareham’s work has often carried observations about society and culture, so too has he become a part of an artistic culture, albeit in a small but integral way. Galaxie 500 and Luna have influenced countless dreampop and slowcore bands. Wareham has also worked on the soundtracks for two Noah Baumbach films, The Squid and the Whale and Mistress America, even making an on-screen appearance as a disgruntled neighbor in the latter.

The title of Luna’s new album, A Sentimental Education—itself a reference to a Flaubert novel—suggests a collection of songs that somehow inspired or encouraged a relatively prolific musical career. It is pretentious, but so is much of Wareham’s music. The music itself is fairly eclectic, featuring songs originally by the Velvet Underground (once again showing Luna’s indebtedness to them), David Bowie, and more obscure artists such as Willie Alexander. The quality of the album is debatable—it is certainly not among one of Luna’s better albums—with the best track being, in my opinion, their rendition of the Cure’s “Fire in Cairo”. Yet, as an object of cultural history, the album is worth a listen. The music, curated for its personal and aesthetic value, offers a glimpse into the overall work of Dean Wareham. It is a Joseph Cornell box, a collection of small pieces that inspired an artist who trades in cultural and artistic appreciation, put on display for our own cultural and artistic appreciation. 

Sam Wilcox is a sophomore in Columbia College (tentatively) studying English and Philosophy. When he graduates he will move out to the countryside and fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming an alpaca.

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