I find it very hard to listen to indie rock from the 90s these days. This isn't because I think the music is bad, rather because of its associations. That music was "my music" in my youth, the music of my generation and music obscure enough that it made me feel like part of something. I saw Pavement at a club show in 1997 and the vibe in the room was like everyone there should be my best friend.
Back then I thought the world could be heading in a better direction, and that my generation would be a part of it. The following decades quickly abused me of those naive thoughts. I recently read a political history of the USA since 1974, and once the book got to 2000 the knots started forming in my stomach. Each event felt like a punch to the gut. The stolen election of 2000, the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq, George Bush using homophobia to get reelected, Hurricane Katrina, economic collapse in 2008, the rise of the Tea Party, Donald Trump. In the 90s the bad things were minor, like the president getting a beej followed by an inept and opportunistic push for impeachment.
Listening to 90s indie rock brings me back to my naivete and a time that wasn't great by any means but that beats what we've got now. I now totally understand the nostalgia some in Europe had after 1914 for the "belle epoque," despite its many problems.
Luckily for me, there's some great 90s indie rock I discovered after 2000, and thus can listen to without the poison of nostalgia. One artist is Mark Lanegan, who I knew at the time mostly as the lead singer of The Screaming Trees, a minor Seattle grunge band who had a well-deserved hit with "I Nearly Lost You."
Sometime circa 2007 in the midst of a raging Michigan winter I turned to folk music for solace, and picked up Ballad of the Broken Seas, the first duet album Lanegan did with Isobel Campbell, former member of Belle and Sebastian. I loved it, and through it discovered Lanegan's solo work from the 1990s.
On these songs Lanegan's voice is in a lower register than with the Trees, which suits him better. They are mostly acoustic, and reminiscent of the great spooky sound Nirvana got on their Unplugged show, a sound that still haunts me a quarter century later. If you want a fine example that will have you asking for more, listen to "Carnival" from the stellar 1994 album Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. The violin is scratchy and eerie, and Lanegan's voice a mix of bourbon and bluster. It sounds like something that gets played at open mic night at the bar in Hades.
I've never bothered to analyze the lyrics, since the mood is so evocative. This is not the ironic detachment of a lot of 1990s indie rock, but something dredged up from the depths of the soul. In the past eighteen years I can't remember the number of nights I've sat up wondering if things will ever stop getting worse. Some music helps distract me from these emotions, but Mark Lanegan's stuff is perfect when I really want to lean into the skid.