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The Happiest Days of Our Lives (The Complete Joan of Arc Tapes) by My Favorite (Review)

I’m glad I’m not the only one who wrote such doomed poetry in study hall, and it warms my heart to finally hear it put to such exquisite music.
Happiest Days, My Favorite

In the past few years, groups such as Interpol, The Faint, Ladytron, The Postal Service, Figurine, Fine China, and a slew of others have received quite a bit of press (both good and bad) for reviving the ghosts of early 80s alterna-pop/new wave/post-punk/whatever. But My Favorite has managed to avoid the limelight, and yet laboring in relative obscurity, they’ve written some of the most stirring 80s pop to be written in the 21st century. In fact, of all the bands mentioned, this New York quintet might possess the most sincere and heartfelt interpretation of that hallowed decade’s music as you’re likely to find these days.

It’s impossible to not hear the ghosts of The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Joy Division, Echo And The Bunnymen, and The Field Mice (to name but a few) rattling their chains about in these 16 songs (not counting the stellar remixes on the second disc). And yet My Favorite, led by Michael Grace, Jr., play their music with such sincerity, conviction, and even sympathy that it’s easy to overlook the fact that their influences are as obvious as the woozy melancholy that pervades their music. At times, they do it so well that it’s tempting to think that they came up with the whole shebang, and that groups like Interpol and The Postal Service are ripping them off.

Musically, everything you hear on The Happiest Days of Our Lives is exactly what you’d expect to hear. Take a moment, close your eyes, and picture the most perfect 80’s song you ever heard. Maybe it’s the one you listened to the summer you had your first crush, and as a result, your first brush with heartache. Maybe it’s the one you and your friends traded back and forth on junior high mixtapes, when you all discovered Robert Smith or Morrissey and knew, beyond a doubt, that they would compose the soundtrack of your teenage years. Or maybe it’s one that you heard once in some Brat Pack movie years ago and have been unable to track down, and yet just remembering a snippet brings back waves of nostalgia.

Whatever the case, My Favorite knows what it is, and with the aid of chiming guitars (think Johnny Marr), billowing synths (think “Disintegration”), and plenty of drum programming (think “The Perfect Kiss”), they’ve distilled whatever was good and great and nostalgic about those songs into their music.

At times, My Favorite’s songs don’t even seem to be real, but rather archetypes or templates for writing the stereotypical new wave hit. Everything — the bouncy synths of “Homeless Club Kids”, with sparse, echoing guitars chiming throughout; the ringing guitars of “L=P” that curiously echo The Cure’s “Lovesong”; the dark, pulsing bassline of “Le Monster”; and more — seems to be polished and perfectly in place, almost too perfectly.

But what lifts My Favorite’s music above bordering on cliche (or perhaps lets it plunge so far into cliche that the cliche inverts and becomes more original than before) are the band’s lyrics, delivered in the detached-yet-aching vocals of Grace and Andrea Vaughn. Many of the lyrics are twisted and ironic, almost sordidly so — themes such as teenage rebellion, alienated youth, heartache, tragic romance, and mental issues are here in all of their glory — and really quite clever, but the true genius is the empathy with which they’re delivered.

I’ve never known what it’s like to go flying through a windshield and spend 5 years in a hospital, taking pills, masturbating, and getting dirty photos in the mail. But so help me if my heart doesn’t skip a beat when I hear the band sing “I miss my friends and I want to go home/And I am tired of taking pills to make me feel better” (“Le Monster”). On the other hand, I do know what it’s like to pine after someone I can’t have, which makes lines like “I’m not a saint/I’m not a soldier/I’m just a picture frame that could not hold her” (“Half There And Dancing”) resonate soundly.

The same goes for lines like “A talent for my own destruction is all I’ve ever owned” (“The Happiest Days of My Life”) or “Loneliness is pornography to them but to us it is an art” (“L=P”). I’m glad I’m not the only one who wrote such doomed poetry in study hall, and it warms my heart to finally hear it put to such exquisite music.

An essay written from the perspective of Joan Of Arc (apparently, the band’s posterchild for misunderstood, alienated youth everywhere) is included in the liner notes. In it, the band makes some self-deprecating comments about their own music (“I marched halfway to hell through the pouring rain. But the boy and his lot stayed in their rooms, imagining the whole world was piled up against the outside of their door.”) while also making what could be statement of purpose of sorts.

The imagined Joan Of Arc writes “They always knew there were things worth fighting for. They just never believed that they were one of them. They were almost invisible in the camouflage world of neon lights and vinyl siding. But I saw it all, how their war left them dark around the eyes.” My Favorite’s music ultimately describes this world of disaffected youth, this lost generation. And even while the catchiness and pop appeal of My Favorite’s music often has me breaking into a wide grin and bobbing my head to the beat, I can’t help but feel pity for the people in those songs.

Broken and fucked up individuals with battered stories — the band dedicates the album to “saints who recanted at the fire” and “the prince who left her to face it alone” — litter the streets of My Favorite’s songs. Making them heroes, My Favorite renders their struggles against, and defeats by, youthful heartbreak and suburban ennui with cleverness and sympathy, even nobility.

It’s both odd and refreshing to hear such heart and intelligence in pop music, and doubly so in pop music that echoes early 80’s/new wave music (which has often been criticized, and rightfully so, as being plastic and artificial). But there is, undeniably, beauty in My Favorite’s tales of loneliness and alienation, and most importantly, compassion.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that you can dance to them too, if you want to.

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