The Midnight’s new album, Kids, is a fascinating and well-executed work of art, drenched in colorful synths, upbeat rhythms, and evocative lyrics seemingly about a simpler time when the malls were vibrant with kids hanging out and playing video games and getting crushes and engaging in all sorts of lovely tomfoolery.
But don’t be fooled by that first blush assessment, though. The Midnight would never patronize you with such a simple sentiment. This is a nostalgic record, to be sure, but let’s not forget The Midnight’s mantra: “mono no aware,” a Japanese phrase that refers to sad beauty of seeing time pass you by. Like the phrase, this record recognizes that nostalgia is bathed in wistfulness — even sadness. Even the fondest, happiest memories are tinged with the sometimes crushing realization that you can never go back. You can’t go back to the mall, because it’s probably torn down.
Song titles like “Youth,” “Kids,” “Explorers,” “Saturday Mornings,” and “Arcade Dreams,” all evoke fond memories. I wasn’t a teen in the ’80s, but I did live through them and did find myself with friends and family at the mall oh-so-often in the ’80s and early ’90s. I watched Saturday morning cartoons. My friends and I would all go off exploring the neighborhood without supervision for hours at a time. Youth in those days was a blast. We never thought it would end.
Sure, it had its challenges, too. We’d be at “war” with other “tribes” in the neighborhood, sometimes resulting in bruises and more. There were the crushes who crushed on others, thereby crushing you. But our world was small.
We didn’t know about the grander world around us: the rampant consumerism; the cratering towns and dying American Dream as industry after industry left for cheaper pastures; the plague of HIV and AIDS that President Reagan and his team didn’t take seriously; the drastically diminishing power of labor in the face of the Gordon Gekkos of the world; the threat of nuclear war with the USSR; diminished representation in government and media for women and people of color, etc., etc. We were kids.
Say you’re a bit older — maybe you’re in your mid-40s now and distinctly remember how awesome it was to be a teenager at the mall in the ’80s. You were probably quite aware of the challenges at hand, but didn’t really think too much about it. What teenager really would?
And we look back on that now and we are still filled with such grand nostalgia for “simpler times,” when we didn’t have to worry about all of the dumpster fires of 2018 we can’t possibly extinguish. The world seems worse than ever now and we lament the hell out of all of this. To me, this wistfulness is where Kids lives. The world was still dissolving back then, but at least we had our youth.
‘…Monsters in the Spare Bedroom’
“We are not a sentimental age…”
Those are the first words Tyler Lyle sings on Kids, in the song “Wave,” following an intro interlude track called “Youth” that features sweet synths and sampled pieces from news reports in the early 1980s discussing the then-growing personal computer phenomenon.
The phrase sets the stage for a nuanced, mature, and certainly complicated type of nostalgia that pervades the album. Lyle is too gifted a lyricist to ever peddle one-dimensional nostalgia and his bandmate Tim McEwan is too talented to match that with paint-by-numbers synthery.
On “Wave,” Lyle follows up that opening line with words about people wanting to be close and intimate, but not so close as to actually know anything about each other. He’s setting the stage for our modern times. We’re more comfortable chatting on social media with people, whose names are probably not even real half the time. We eat, date, and have fun all through apps and avatars. We’ve forgotten how to be the kids at the mall.
We’ve forgotten how to be the kids at the mall.
On title cut “Kids,” both the prelude version, which follows “Wave,” and the reprise version, which closes out the album, Lyle strikes even deeper at the complicated undercurrent of nostalgia, even as McEwan unleashes the sweetest blend of nostalgic synth-pop.
Lyle sings (and in the closer, an LA-based children’s choir repeats): “Kids are sad/The sky is blue/There are monsters in the spare bedroom/Kids grow up and move away/They closed the plant and the mall arcade/Kids are sad/Their parents, too/Kids get high in the spare bedroom/We grow up and move away/The seasons pass but the monsters stay.”
Wow. That’s the nostalgia I understand. It’s not enough that you can’t relive some of those happy childhood moments merely because of adult circumstances — such as making sure your own kids have good memories or the fact that you have relationships and have a demanding day job – but market forces and bad government have ensured the entire fucking setting for your nostalgia is gone. As John Cusack’s character Martin Blank said in one of the first ’80s nostalgia films of our modern era, 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank, upon realizing his childhood home was razed to make way for a convenience store: “You can never go home again… but I guess you can shop there.”
“America 2,” previously released as a single, is a bit more optimistic. Musically, it’s an uplifting cut with a driving backbeat, a beautiful wash of synths, and a triumphant lead guitar. Thematically, it seems to be about taking stock of what’s left after the massive changes to society, both the bad and the good, and figuring out a way forward.
Although there are shades of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA all over Kids, on this song the spirit of The Boss is especially poignant (and not just because of the song titles):
“Like the dancer with bruises who gathers the cash/When the music is through no she don’t look back/I’ve come to look for America too/And we stole the car on the 4th of July/I pawned my guitar and we drove through the night/I’ve come to look for America too”
Maybe what Lyle’s doing is tapping into the courageous energy of youthful innocence and applying it to more mature or wiser endeavors? Or, perhaps, he’s overcoming nostalgia entirely to build something new? A new America? A new us?
Overall, on Kids The Midnight are moving the synthwave genre into more mature territory. Through an ’80s pastiche, they honor the happy memories we have for a simpler childhood, but they also honor the longing in which those memories are encompassed.
And, through that lens, they tackle the complicated nature of human connection in 2018 through a musical genre that was born and mostly lives in social media and other hallways on the internet. The dream of those early personal computers was one of the betterment of society, but instead we’ve ensured that the kids of today will never get the kind of experiences we had. They’re stuck feeling nostalgic for memes or internet forums or YouTube channel comments sections. In 30 years what positive memories will they have about these experiences? Their nostalgia going to be for the nostalgia we have about the ’80s, and perhaps that’s all right.
Kids is available now via Bandcamp and in physical forms.