Is it true that we no longer exist?
Or are we not yet born?
–Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “The Loss,” 1991
There’s an obvious risk in writing about the history of a time one has lived through, that of confusing one’s own story with everyone else’s. I don’t think it’s a mistake, though, to read the early 1990s in America as a strange, unique moment in recent history; the Cold War had ended, in a way that no one had ever expected it could. (The best evidence: in any work of fiction written during the Cold War but set in the future, it’s still going on. Perhaps Star Trek was the only major exception.) The thing that had hung over all of us and determined so much of our history and values was gone, and nothing new had taken its place. That was the lived world of 1991, when the Until the End of the World soundtrack was released and landed on the CD shelf of everyone I knew. (To this day, I know no one, including me, who has actually seen the movie. That’s why this isn’t appearing as a Soundtracking.)
Part of the feeling was the post-Cold War hangover, where we looked around and wondered just what the fuck we’d done the night before, and if anyone saw it. (“It’s kind of hazy, but I think we might have almost killed our entire species.” “Dude, why did we do that?” “Um, a dispute over economic systems? Also I remember something called ‘hair metal.’”) Part of it was a sense of hope, not optimism: not the sense that everything was going to work out, but that it might; the sense that, for the first time in a long time, the ending wasn’t written anymore. That was the feeling that this little collection of music nailed, and why we kept listening.
Wim Wenders has always been hip to the music of today (in fact, in Buena Vista Social Club he would create the hip music of his day) and Until the End of the World works as a time capsule of the rising alternative music of 1991, showcasing both the pantheon of older musicians (Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Can, Lou Reed) and the rising stars. Julee Cruise, riding the wave of the success of Twin Peaks shows up with “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears,” which she might have sung at One-Eyed Jack’s; Jane Siberry/KD Lang’s “Calling All Angels” comes off as touching, sweet, and feels like it sets up all of Lilith Fair. And with any contemporary compilation, there are some rising stars who didn’t make it–“Move with Me” was sadly just about the last moment of the Neneh Cherry boom.
As a collection of nineteen tracks and sixteen artists, it’s remarkably even, which says a lot about the unity of vision and sound here. The music is all medium tempo, and usually subdued; the most emotional moments are conveyed by tone rather than volume. There’s nothing like Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun,” Ministry’s “N.W.O.,” or Amy Ray’s cover of “Romeo and Juliet” to name three great songs of the period. (Ray’s version is one of the most harrowing emotional performances I’ve ever heard; I’m always genuinely afraid for her when I hear it.) It’s the kind of music you’d come to hear on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show or MTV’s 120 Minutes, two more defining cultural institutions of the 1990s, or maybe at a nightclub after 2am, moving but only rarely arresting. These songs mostly don’t impose themselves on you. They merge seamlessly with Graeme Revell’s four cuts from the score; this is literally true with the transition from his title music to the second track, Talking Heads’ “Sax and Violins.” I can never hear the moment when one becomes the other.
Veteran artists show up not as tributes but as figures in transition, recognizably themselves but moving into a new world. There is no nostalgia here, no artist who showed up for historical value. None of them could because none of them had stayed as what they were. Listen to R. E. M.’s “Fretless,” which has Michael Stipe trying out a more yearning, more accessible sound in his voice, something that was first heard on Green’s “The Wrong Child.” It didn’t really work there (and in any case was overshadowed by the much more emotional “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt”) but he’s getting better at it, and it would culminate the following year in Automatic for the People, still my pick for their best album. “Fretless” is a key step on the journey from “The Wrong Child” to “Everybody Hurts” and “Nightswimming,” their very best song, and one of the great monuments of the classical lieder.
The title track has the same feeling of transition. Often I think of U2’s true breakthrough album of the 1990s to be Zooropa rather than Achtung Baby; the former has too many anthemic songs that could still fit in with the Joshua Tree era. It’s in the extras and experiments of Zooropa that you hear something truly different. “Until the End of the World” has the earlier feel, with the repeated guitar riffs fitting in so well with the rest of Achtung and the lyrics sliding between the drunken modernity of “you lose too much these days when you start to think” and the drama of “I reached out for the one I tried to destroy.” That closing line feels like it belongs to their earlier work, which gives “Until the End of the World” a kind of hesitancy, like they’ve stepped into something new and aren’t quite sure they’ll keep walking into it.
You gotta love a soundtrack that provides two title tracks, and the second, “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World” shows Nick Cave in his full glorious Dapper Aussie Goth mode; it’s just one of the most deliriously fun songs I know. Cave often sounds like he’s the most engaging guy at the bar (something The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford made literal), and here he comes of as full-on plastered and leading everyone in song. Cave brews this masterful alchemy where the more ridiculous he gets, the more sincere he sounds, and this has plenty of ridiculous sincerity. In a neat touch of sequencing, Cave’s influence seems to reverberate backwards and forwards through the CD: this song appears in the middle and “The Adversary” and “Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed” appear near the beginning and the end, respectively. Both feel like Nick Cave songs (lots of girls in pretty dresses), and the latter song has a good vocal performance by Daniel Lanois, but original flavor Cave is still the best.
This isn’t a perfect compilation; soundtracks rarely are. The low points are Elvis Costello’s “Days,” which suggests that he tried to rewrite (EDIT: he didn’t write it and thanks to John Bruni for the catch) his favorite Bob Dylan song (“Every Grain of Sand”) with the “use the first thing you find in the rhyming dictionary” rule, and Depeche Mode’s “Death’s Door,” which sounds about like what you’d come up with if you were given ten minutes to write a Depeche Mode parody.
The two best tracks come from two of the most veteran artists. First, Patti Smith (Fred Smith joins her) does the minimal spoken-word “It Takes Time.” Smith had a lifelong interest in French symbolist poetry and I suspect a phrase like “the mathematics of our desire” would sound better in French (for all I know it could be a line from Rimbaud). It’s something that could be ridiculous and works because of the absolute conviction and steadiness in the delivery, because there are some beautiful moments (Fred intoning “faces of children/phases of the moon”), but mostly because of the mood it creates and sustains. The sound is all quiet bass, electronica, and percussion, and Fred and Patti never change the level or tone of their voices, barely above whispers. It doesn’t feel like a song or even like poetry, but like an invocation, like it should be spoken to oneself just before dawn; more than on any other track, the restraint of the album pays off here, not passionless but too focused to raise the voice. The title doesn’t appear in the song, but it casts hope over all of it; it’s one of the best examples of Richard Meltzer’s observation that a good title is worth as much as a song’s worth of good lyrics. Something is coming, she’s saying, but it takes time. Anger has turned to something else; this isn’t the woman who said “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not for mine” anymore.
Smith’s contemporary Lou Reed brings in “What’s Good,” the opening of his album Magic and Loss, for the winner. (Strictly speaking, this version is a remix of “What’s Good” with the first track on the album, “Dorita.” That gives us the guitar flourishes at the beginning and the end.) Magic and Loss completed the turn in Reed’s career that began with New York (arguably, it began with The Blue Mask) moving from anger towards engagement, with his family (on New York’s “Beginning of a Great Adventure”) to his past (on his masterpiece, the Andy Warhol tribute album Songs for Drella), and here to mortality, by reflecting on two friends who died, songwriter Doc Pomus and “Rotten Rita” (who had been memorialized on New York’s “Halloween Parade.”)
On Magic and Loss, “What’s Good” has the subtitle “The Thesis,” and it is, the essence of the album. Reed memorializes his friends, unsparingly looking at the details of their dying (“I see you in my mind’s eye strangling on your tongue”) and wonders, well, what’s good? Most of the lyrics are wonderfully nonsensical, like Lewis Carroll (“What good is seeing-eye chocolate? What good is rain that falls up?”) and that creates a goofy, bemused texture that creates a lyrical negative space for the lines that count (“And what good is cancer in April? Why no good, no good at all.”) There was possibly no one in all of rock who was as expressive with as little inflection as Reed, and this is one of his great vocals, someone who’s mourning but not depressed because he can still feel. He knows that they died, and he didn’t, and that the first duty of the living is to live. He knows, Smith knows; what everyone knows on this album is that they’re part of a world now, living in it. The music maintains a constant, even, striding tempo all the way to the end, finishing with the perfect lines “what’s good? Life’s good, but not fair at all.”
That was the feeling of the 1990s. If certainty–and fairness is a way of being certain–was lost, we were still here, awake, alive, and searching for new values, and sensing that the search itself could have meaning. Maybe the best motto of the time came from Star Trek: the Next Generation, a single word: engage. That was what drove the decade’s best works: the massive Cold War tapestries of Underworld by Don deLillo and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood and Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, the music of R. E. M. and Tori Amos, The Simpsons, The X-Files, Fearless, Pulp Fiction, Chasing Amy, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, The Thin Red Line, and of course the first filaments of the Interwebz. For my generation, this was the true millennial transformation, no matter what the calendars said. Because the older values weren’t recognized, a lot of older dipshits couldn’t recognize what was valuable here and wrote it off as “irony.” None of it was ironic, but the opposite: earnest, unsure, and happy. So much of this got closed off and lost after 9/11, as America (not because of the event but because of what those in power did with it) turned into something smaller, meaner, and more lethal. The Until the End of the World soundtrack may not be the best music of the decade, but it was some of the most characteristic, a remembrance of a different, hopeful time.
Thanks to Matthew Crowe and the Solute Record Club for allowing me to contribute.