In a scene where it was cool not to give a shit, Vivian Girls always gave a shit. A lot of different people give a shit about Vivian Girls, too. In their time away, the trio became mythological, a touchstone for countless bands in their wake. They’re the best band to come out of that late 2000s noise-pop wave, and their albums have stood the test of time, a pleasure to revisit not only for nostalgia’s sake but because the songs hold up. They released three LPs in just under four years and then they were gone; their final shows in 2014 were footnotes to a career that was already seemingly over. But here we have Memory, their first new album in eight years and a worthy addition to the legacy that Vivian Girls have already established. The band is as good as they ever were, and maybe even a little better.
Its members spent the time away growing up. They played in other bands — Cassie Ramone with the Babies, Katy Goodman as La Sera, Ali Koehler with Upset — but they mostly did the normal things you do as you get older. Goodman and Koehler got married and are raising kids; Ramone is the band’s lone wolf, and it’s through her that these Vivian Girls songs take shape. Their earlier work itched with the insecurities of youth, and those insecurities don’t just go away after you reach a certain age — they morph into something darker, more sinister and entrenched.
Memory is gloomy and compressed, trading out the deafening roar of the subway for sinking palm trees and an eerie stillness. It has the most in common, sonically, with their 2009 album Everything Goes Wrong, not only because that’s the only studio album that Koehler drummed on but because of a certain oppressive heat that hangs over it.
Since they broke up, all three members gradually made the migration from New York City to Los Angeles, from a city with constant motion to a city defined by static sun. Ramone was the last one to move, spurred by a phone call with Goodman where they got excited about reuniting the band, and a lot of Memory is about looking backward, about feeling like the last one standing in the rubble of your old life. “I live in New York City/ All my friends are dead,” she sings on one track. “Cuz I’m far away in my head/ I look at the ground and no one’s around.”
The way Vivian Girls balance darkness and light has always been special. It’s a tightly controlled chaos, a high-wire balancing act that they’ve always made look easy, though it’s really not. “Since I was a child I was analyzing pop song structures,” Ramone said in a recent Rolling Stone profile. “Even with Disney music. That’s why I’m such a big Bacharach fan. But I also love grit and punk simplicity, so when I write, I try to merge those two ideals. People can dislike my music if they want, but it bothers me when they’ve said it’s not thought-out or ‘lazy.'”
That intentionality comes through clearly on Memory. Produced by Rob Barbato, it’s dynamically muddy, texturally dense. Memory engages with the nostalgic element that’s always been present in their music, that warped tape deck feel; they’re still fuzzy and warm, melodies jutting up like jagged rock candy, but that bed of noise has an even sicklier sweetness. They use that noise as a way to offset pain, burying themselves in it to the point of becoming numb. But that numbness can also be a release, a way to heal, given time. Most of the songs are about heartbreak and loneliness, but the album ends on a note of twinged happiness: “Being there with you was not so easy/ After we were through I breathed a sigh/ But in the car with you, we’d never laughed that hard.”
Ramone’s lyrics play out like a harsh mirror for anyone who has ever struggled with their own mental health. “Oh God, the fuck’s going on?” she asks of herself on one song. “There’s nothing OK in your mind/ You should know by now you don’t deserve love/ Cuz no one can keep you in line.” That song, “At It Again,” is delivered with a sing-song grin, a breakdown treated like a childhood tantrum. It’s wickedly dark, a carousel of spiraling thought patterns. “Don’t understand how you think you’re good, how you think you’re doing OK,” Ramone sings, taunting herself: “No one wants you/ No one needs you/ No one loves you.”
A part of Vivian Girls’ narrative, sadly, is how they became a lightning rod for a lot of online hate. That sort of insidious commentary is still as prevalent as ever, playing out on social media and shadowy message boards. It sucks how those virtual comments can fuel real-life anger, depression, doubt. Memory is partially a reflection of that, but it’s also about how our past experiences define and shape us, teach us who to trust and who not to, what voices and whose opinions actually matter. It’s comforting to think about how these three musicians have found each other and stayed enough in sync throughout the years so that Memory can return as confident and assured as it is. Though these songs are heartsick and struggling, they also stand strong. Isn’t that what Vivian Girls always represented? They find beauty in imperfection, their music embraces its knotty interior in order to find a community that supports you despite it all.
Memory is out 9/20 via Polyvinyl.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Alabama Shakes leader Brittany Howard’s solo debut Jaime.
• Hiss Golden Messenger’s rootsy and reflective Terms Of Surrender.
• Chastity Belt’s tender and intentional self-titled album.
• M83’s ambient instrumental collection DSVII.
• Tove Lo’s fun and light Sunshine Kitty.
• Molly Sarlé’s spectral and meditative Karaoke Angel.
• Twen’s kaleidoscopic, vibey Awestruck.
• LIFE’s gnarly A Picture Of Good Health.
• Pieta Brown’s airy and swaying Freeway.
• Liam Gallagher’s latest solo effort Why Me? Why Not.
• Robbie Robertson’s cinematic Sinematic.
• Cashmere Cat’s sugar rush Princess Catgirl.
• Efterklang’s sparse and stately Altid Sammen.
• Blink-182’s clamorous NINE.
• Keane’s Cause And Effect.