It seems that the farther removed we are from the 1980s, the more palpable its influences become. It’s a notion I’ve been entertaining frequently these past six months, as new releases from Neon Indian, Sleigh Bells, and Frankie Rose have unapologetically tapped into a sonic reservoir teeming with references to the Human League and John Hughes movies. And so it’s no coincidence that Brooklyn by-way-of San Francisco trio Lemonade is touring with Neon Indian this spring. Though the group’s West Coast beginnings found them steeped in a chaotic cocktail of drug-addled electronica, the edges have been softened over the past 4 years, resulting in an intoxicating brand of synth-pop that’s slicker than a Gordon Gekko coif. Like the occasional syndicated cable showing of Crocodile Dundee or Short Circuit, it’s pretty easy to get sucked in.
And yet, for all of its familiarity, Lemonade’s music still resonates with the alluring sparkle of something mysterious and avant-garde. As a friend of mine recently conjectured, “We are now as far removed from Back to the Future as the characters in that movie were from the 1950s.” Though artifacts like poodle skirts and whitewall tires were entirely commonplace at that time, Marty McFly just couldn’t help but be mesmerized by it all, much as the 50s inhabitants in that film were flabbergasted by rock n’ roll and name-branded underwear. It’s in this simpatico relationship between the familiar and the foreign that Lemonade finds its niche.
There’s irony to be found in the fact that it took the 1980s – one of the 20th century’s most lampooned decades – for Lemonade to be taken seriously. Their first two albums were lively affairs, but the disparate influences at play – house, world music, and post-punk among them – resulted in a kaleidoscopic pastiche so extreme it was sometimes easy to mistake it for parody. Consider 2010’s Pure Moods, where the group could be heard veering from faux-tropicalia (“Banana Republic”) to Graceland-era Paul Simon (“Lifted”). Whereas they would’ve once been more apt to embrace everything from rave music to grime in their songwriting, Diver finds Lemonade at their least circuitous, calculatedly delving into the accessible textures of 80s electropop acts like Soft Cell and New Order with aplomb.
Yet it’s the deft use of space – and not the warm afterglow of nostalgia – that makes Diver a great record. From the thundering boom of the drums in the opening moments of “Infinite Style,” it’s apparent that ambience is going to trump the frenzied milieu of past releases. Sirens moan in the background, and it doesn’t take much time at all to imagine some post-apocalyptic metropolis where people are dancing as they wait for the end of days. “Neptune” sounds like almost every Adult Contemporary track you’ve ever heard, with crooned vocals, finessed drumming, and unobtrusive keyboard melodies setting a familiar template for the story of a spurned lover. “Eye Drops” is a luminous fusion of twinkling piano lines and obligatory handclaps. “Whitecaps” is stuffed with slowly decaying synth timbres that seem to float through the ether, while “Vivid” pairs forlorn singing from Clendinin and crisp mallet percussion punctuations to evoke something from Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration days.
Diver has its moments of blissful dancefloor reveries (“Big Changes” and “Sinead”), but there’s a pervasive tinge of melancholy that keeps the gravitas in place and the euphoria at bay. Any fan of any 1980s band that had any song once tagged as synthpop is bound to experience déjà vu with this record. Is it Simple Minds? Talk Talk? Spandau Ballet? Duran Duran? We may never get answers, but it’s the guessing that’ll have you coming back time and again to Lemonade’s third and most rewarding LP.