Last Monday, I found myself on a Skype call with some old high-school pals to discuss a 40-year-old project one spearheaded and the rest of us participated in. More on that in the weeks/months to come, but for now I’ll simply say that, in some respects, parts of the night were akin to a movie flashback. We saw images of our youths played out before our eyes.
The latest VHS Collection album, Night Drive, is a similar yet different tear in time.
For those not in the know, which until two months ago included me, the indie group—which began life in 2015—is a retro-minded, synth-driven trio (James Bohannon, Conor Cook and Nils Vanderlip) that sounds somewhat like a mix of Simple Minds, Thompson Twins and Tears for Fears. Those comparisons would mean little, of course, if the songs themselves weren’t on the mark—and they are. They sound lifted lock, stock and barrel from the soundtracks of Risky Business and The Breakfast Club, among other ‘80s flicks, or recovered from a cassette recording of the legendary WLIR-FM, which—along with MTV—helped a slew of new artists break big in America. To give an idea of what I mean, here’s “The Dark,” the leadoff track from Night Drive:
The stylistic similarities are sure to send folks of a certain age on a memory spiral, yet the songs are anything but nostalgic fodder. That’s the genius of the group, I think. Although framed within the sonic conventions of the 1980s, the songs are not wistful yearnings for a specific time and/or place. Instead, they’re akin to a succession of stones skipping the waves of spacetime from the past to the present, saying in song what’s been sung since the dawn of time, just in the idiosyncratic convention of another era.
“The Deep End,” for instance, questions why, among other things, love remains elusive. “Survive” ponders the human need to try, try again; and “Anyway” hones in on the same, albeit after a drunken confession and rejection (“l told you all the secrets I could never say/Of all the people I could love, you walked away”). Other songs trod similar ground, while the uptempo “Searching for the Light”—released as a single in late 2020—talks about finding a purpose in life.
The closing “The Party” is a welcome surprise, given that it’s accented by an acoustic guitar, not synths, and veers away from heartache to the reverse. The heart is full and a vow is made: “I will never run away.” It follows “With or Without Me,” which rejoices in what a few songs earlier seemed impossible: the first flush of love, which surprises the narrator himself. “Now I’m on my knees and it’s strange to see/that it’s you I never needed more.”
In an interview, Bohannon and Vanderlip talk about how the band constructed Night Drive for the road; they envisioned it as providing the soundtrack for a late-night drive to somewhere (or maybe riding aimlessly around the block). I can’t speak to whether it succeeds on that front, as the bulk of my driving these days consists of weekend supermarket runs, but it does succeed here at my desk, where I am more often than not. Maybe because of that, though, I hear it more as an early morning album; it starts in darkness, when I typically begin my day, and ends with the first rays of light showering hope from above.
In short: Night Drive deserves a wide audience. Give it a spin the next time you’re in the car…or at your desk. It’s a great album.
The track list: