The trailer for the recent concert film Big Easy Express—in which director Emmett Malloy follows a cross-country tour by popular folk-rock bands Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Old Crow Medicine Show on a vintage train—opens with a brash monologue.
“We’re gonna play some music across the country the way they saw it more than a hundred years ago,” a narrator proclaims, “back into the magic.”
Top-hatted musicians appear in grimy clothes and old-timey whiskers. The color-tone recalls vintage film stock. Text from the trailer harkens images of a “historic train” and the “great American landscape.”
The film is the latest work of a burgeoning crop of musical acts trading on dusty boots and the suspension of disbelief to intimate the catharsis of a simpler time.
It isn’t the most popular example of that cultural trend. Reviews of Mumford and Sons’ Billboard-topping 2012 album Babel, recaps of this summer’s festival season, and think-pieces on the acquisition of Instagram by Facebook have all taken part in the same conversation, but I think Big Easy Express is the best, most recent example of what might be called a certain cultural neo-Transcendentalism that deserves at least a little bit of pushback.
For the past few years, music has been the most feeling standard-bearer of this phenomenon. Bands like Of Monsters and Men, Mumford, and Edward Sharpe have enjoyed huge festival followings on ground prepared by the success of acts like Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes. At Sasquatch! this May, I was surrounded by thousands of young people screaming their cultural nostalgia into the Washington sky along to the Head and the Heart’s “Down in the Valley.” It’s not an excitement I buy into personally, but it’s worth wondering just what it is about “whiskey rivers” and “age old trades” that gets people so choked up these days.
They aren’t alone or unprecedented in their taste. For the past few years, American aesthetics writ large have gazed backward fondly. From menswear Americana in its selvedge jeans and panoply of chambray, to what graphic designer and critic Alexandra Lange recently called the Obama campaign’s typographically “ersatz version of American nostalgia,” we’ve refashioned the elbow grease and virgin landscapes of bygone eras as antidotes to the unique maladies of the 21st century.
But if mountain air, banjos, and buffalo plaid are the cure, what exactly is it we’re suffering from?
Big Easy Express is a feat of physical and cognitive escapism, chugging toward an almost Disney-fied, Brannan filter frontier America at full speed in an attempt to get away from the malaise of suburban cul-de-sacs.
I think this has something to do with the Internet. After all, the common experience of young consumers across the country is a life lived vicariously online, using Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Spotify to give visual and audible form to their acute spatial and temporal longings.
On his anthemic and galvanizing hit, “The Cave,” Marcus Mumford hoarsely declares, “Cause I need freedom now / And I need to know how / To live my life as it’s meant to be.” He might as well be a sixteen-year-old girl crafting a Pinterest of clothes she can’t afford, a teenager across the country feverishly reblogging Free Cabin Porn, or an “urban woodsman” working as a barista at a retro-styled coffee shop in Brooklyn. Mumford is their soundtrack because in his music the tragedy of their paralysis is real. His music reaches for the nothingness behind what is certainly an aesthetic mirage, and achieves poignancy in doing so.
While these cathartic high points are not without their own tragic value—it’s hard not to be taken in by some of the Big Easy Express concert footage—it’s important to demand more than skillful musical execution these days.
There’s nothing wrong with banjo per se, but when the Head and the Heart free associates state names and sepia tones all the way to festival mainstages and Mumford tops charts with variations on an already vacuous theme, we’ve got a problem.
We’re in the second decade of the 21st century. Instead of chasing a fading, vintage-postcard sunset, we can patronize the musicians, authors, artists, and designers who can muster a more creative reaction to our collective condition than willing disbelief. And if we’re still going to listen to these modern day Transcendentalists, let’s remember how much of it is fantasy.
After all, even Thoreau had his mom do his laundry.