Ten years ago, while teen-agers were being swept up in the youthful disaffection of grunge, the rock band Luna emerged as the mature alternative to "alternative rock." Where Nirvana was loud, angry, and unrestrained, Luna was witty, considered, and circumspect. Their terrific 1995 album Penthouse—which made Rolling Stone's list of the 150 essential albums of the '90s—connected with twentysomethings like me who felt emotionally adrift, but a little too old for undirected rage. So, it is with eager anticipation that we've awaited Luna's new album, Romantica (Jetset), which was released this week. Dean Wareham, the band's leader, has called Romantica his favorite album since Penthouse. This sets a high bar—and makes an implicit promise: that Romantica will speak to our generation now the way Penthouse did seven years ago. But we're setting ourselves up for disappointment. We may have grown up since then, but Luna hasn't.
There was good reason to expect a lot from this band. Wareham's original outfit, Galaxie 500, was one of the most important acts to come out of the late-'80s independent scene. His plaintive falsetto and shimmering guitar provided an American answer to British shoegazing and supplied a template for subsequent movements such as slowcore and dreampop. As the '90s dawned, Wareham abruptly quit Galaxie 500 and formed Luna. The band defined itself against the muscular, grungy sound of alternative rock. In the song "Lost in Space," Wareham sang, "It's true you're lazy/ you're tired and crazy/ and you know there's something more/ but you can't give it a name/ someone's selling all your heroes/ and they seem so tame." There's no rancor in these lines, but there is a certain sadness, as if he's implicating himself as much as anyone in this failing. Penthouse defined a more seasoned form of nihilism and made Luna the thinking person's band of the '90s.
Now, a decade later, we've experienced an entirely new set of challenges: professional life, a new seriousness to romantic relationships, maybe even the transition to family life and children. We expect Luna to have grown up with us.
After 10 years together, Luna has taken its place among the elders of the New York music underground, alongside Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo. To a fellow New Yorker, elements of the new album are familiar—and telling. The title is drawn from subway posters for a Spanish-language radio station, Musica Romantica. The cover art is a painting of a cigarette lighter decorated with a day-glo sunset, one of a series done by local artist Steve Ellis. Even for an album recorded prior to 9/11, it's hard to imagine there's no hidden, deeper meaning to such frivolous images.
And at first, this appears to be Romantica's organizing logic—exploiting the gap between appearance and meaning. It's an approach Luna has used before. The band's first hit (to the extent that such a thing exists in college radio) was a 1993 cover of Beat Happening's "Indian Summer," a song that used innocent imagery to dark effect. Over a simple, repeated two-note guitar line, Wareham sings, "Breakfast in cemetery/ Boy tastin wild cherry/ Touch girl, apple blossom/ Just a boy playin possum." It's a Freudian banquet. On Romantica, Wareham displays a similar knack for childish wordplay. But there is no second level to these songs. He's just toying with language. " Black Postcards" begins with a meaningless rhyme: "ice man, ice man/ candy man, sand man/ all the things I wanted for/ someone else took them." " Renee Is Crying" is whimsical, and not much more: "salt and pepper squid/ and Singapore noodles/ I could look at your face/ for oodles and oodles." These lyrics owe more to Dr. Seuss than the Brothers Grimm.
On " Black Champagne" Wareham sings, "My hands are growing old/ My teeth are paved with gold," but these are only the most superficial signs of aging, they don't suggest any wisdom. The song " 1995" promises perspective (after all, that's the year Penthouse was released), but Wareham cops out: "In 1995, I told a thousand lies/ Let me tell you 'bout the agony of love." We're left to fill in the blank ourselves. Maybe this is just as well; one has the sinking feeling that Luna has nothing new to say.
On some level, the band must recognize this, too. To debut its new material, Luna staged two free performances at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Mixed in with their usual crowd were retirees and boomers toting kids who had wandered in from other exhibits. I couldn't help thinking that the choice of venue was appropriate: Luna's music is frozen in time.