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‘The Big Dream': David Lynch Brings His Obsession With the 1950s to Music

“Lynchian” is one of those authorial adjectives that’s invaded our speech, like “Kafka-esque” and “Orwellian.” In his oft-cited essay on David Lynch’s work, David Foster Wallace devotes a couple of paragraphs to determining what the term truly means. Wallace’s definition is as good as any: “A particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” There’s something more to this, though, because the way the mundane is portrayed in Lynch’s work is just as important as the concept itself. And when you listen to Lynch’s music — and particularly his new album The Big Dream, which is out this week — the answer is there, plain as day: it’s the 1950s.

In its own way, The Big Dream is a far more Lynchian album than his debut album Crazy Clown Time, which experimented with fairly contemporary-sounding electronic textures and lots of Auto-Tune. Both those elements appear here, in fairness, but on the whole, the mood is exactly like you might expect from the soundtrack to one of Lynch’s films — 1950s bubblegum pop shot through with an undercurrent that’s both strange and, yes, vaguely macabre (if nothing else because of Lynch’s funny, creaky little voice, which lends a constant air of strangeness to proceedings).

If you hadn’t heard Crazy Clown Time, you’d probably see this as exactly the sort of record David Lynch was bound to make. After all, this sort of music has always been integral to the soundtracks of his films — consider the Tony Bennett song from which Blue Velvet takes its name, for instance, and Angelo Badalamenti’s compositions for Twin Peaks. Similarly, the imagery of the ’50s has also permeated the visual aspects of Lynch’s films — the white picket fences of Jeffrey Beaumont’s hometown, the greaser fantasy of Wild at Heart, the straight-outta-The-Godfather Mr. Eddy of Lost Highway. The way watching Twin Peaks is quite literally like stepping back in time.

Listening to The Big Dream, the question of why the ’50s are of such interest to Lynch presents itself again. My theory on it is this: we’re talking about a decade mythologized on both sides of the ideological fence as the most perfectly American of eras, the last flourishing of what we might now consider something both quintessentially and traditionally American, for better or worse — a sort of pastoral golden era of white picket fences and white faces and good Christian values, before the ’60s counterculture came and changed everything forever. If you’re a conservative, it’s an era that you’re forever trying to recreate; if you’re a liberal, it’s a myth to be imploded. The big dream, indeed.

But either way, the answers are simple. Black and white, if you will. In the Flavorwire office, we spent a fair bit of last week talking about the reason for the resurgence of interest in Lynch’s work, and particularly Twin Peaks, over the last few years. Part of it, I think, is that we are living in an increasingly Lynchian world, i.e. one where the macabre and mundane combine in ever more perverse ways, an era where Lynch’s fables of the underside of American society resonate more strongly than ever.

But part of it also is that, perversely enough given the director’s notoriously perverse approach to narrative, it’s an evocation of an era where the answers were simple. Lynch is a deeply moral filmmaker in his own way, and his films are really quite didactic when you strip away the layers of strangeness that obscure his narratives. His films deal in ethical absolutes.

The world is more complicated these days, though. I think part of the reason for the new wave of interest in Lynch’s work is its moral clarity — we live in a time without clear moral guidelines, where right and wrong are so intertwined with one another that black and white smudge and blur into endless shades of gray. It’s exactly this fact that makes the myth of the 1950s such a powerful one, and also that makes Lynch’s good-and-evil worlds so appealing.

As far as Lynch’s films go, this is both a strength and a weakness — his films are fables, but in their own way, they’re curiously naïve ones. Look at Twin Peaks, for instance, a story where the supernatural overtones are ultimately an extended metaphor for the atavistic evils of child sexual abuse. But in portraying the abuser as (quite literally) the devil, Lynch obviates the need to examine why he acted as he did. Leland Palmer is a man literally possessed in childhood by an avatar of evil, driven to visit the same sins onto his daughter as were visited on him. The metaphorical implication is that he was also abused, but there’s no real examination of the socioeconomic circumstances that might have led to this, or the degree of agency he might have had in his actions.

It seems strange to call Lynch simplistic, but in some respects, at least, that’s exactly what he is. And funnily enough, it’s in his music that you really notice this. The Big Dream is a curiously ingenuous-sounding record — the lyrics range from the simple (“I hope you come back, baby/ Come back real soon”) to the sort of nonsensical quality that plagues the worst of Lynch’s work: “One foot had a red sock/ The other had blue/ It’s Tuesday baby/ Where are you?/ That right sock was red/ The left sock was blue/ I’m guessing baby/ Wednesday’s for who?” The music? Well, y’know, it’s fine. It’s well executed. It sounds like what it’s meant to sound like.

But either way, both when it works and when it doesn’t, The Big Dream sounds like a record out of time, a strange relic of an era that both was and wasn’t. In making this record in 2013, Lynch is again holding a cracked mirror up to the decade that’s provided him with such rich material for so long. But ultimately, this is something he does better with his films, because they have the depth of narrative to sustain the idea. Shorn of narrative interest, the record comes across as pure homage to the sound of the 1950s, albeit a strange, dreamy one.

If it wasn’t made by David Lynch, I suspect this’d be one of those weird curiosities you pick out of bargain bins at record shops — who’s this weird old dude making weird ’50s music? Clearly, you can’t separate art from its context, and the whole sound of The Big Dream assumes some measure of increased significance in the context of Lynch’s oeuvre as a whole. But still, listening to this album is like watching Michael Jordan play baseball. Don’t get me wrong — I love David Lynch. I think he’s a directorial genius, a wonderful storyteller, and, y’know, a decent musician. I just think his aesthetic works best in the context of his films, and for all that his expedition into music is perfectly competent, it’s not his strong suit.

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