If I were ever going to fall in love with a shameless throwback record, it would be one constructed by diehard New Order fans wielding vintage synthesizers and drum machines. Thanks to New York’s Holy Ghost!, I now own such a record, though I can’t say I find these fondly repackaged electro-pop tunes nearly as charming as their creators do. Hat-tips and insider references abound on Holy Ghost!, but what’s communicated most strongly isn’t, ultimately, the duo’s abiding love for new wave and disco, or even the timelessness of the style, but rather the poverty of nostalgia as an aesthetic principle.
“It’s Not Over,” for example, interpolates the vocal melody from New Order’s brilliant “Bizarre Love Triangle” and name-checks “Ultraviolence.” But just between us fanboys, I don’t entirely get the point. It’s not as though this tune has much thematic connection to the New Order songs it references, and so the gesture comes off as pandering in the same way as a cameo from an obscure character in a comic book-based blockbuster. Though that’s not half as audacious as the sonic pilfering that goes on elsewhere: I had to double take the first time “Wait and See” hit its chorus, which repurposes the hook from “Billie Jean.” In these moments I’m reminded of LCD Soundsystem’s slyly referential lyrics, or of Cut Copy’s knack for making distinctive what ought to be derivative, but it’s clear that Holy Ghost! doesn’t have either act’s ear for purposive pastiche. In this case, the painted-on grins and exaggerated winks aren’t flirty or endearing; they’re just the knowing expressions of a group obviously quite impressed with their own cleverness and good taste. To wit, the same listeners who will be able to pick up on all the intertextual extras will probably have the most difficulty enjoying Holy Ghost!, as they’ll also be aware of exactly how little in the way of new ideas has been brought to the table.
In such a context, it almost doesn’t feel worth pointing out that most of the songs on Holy Ghost! are catchy and well-constructed. “Jam for Jerry” stands out by virtue of its excellent chorus, though it also sounds a whole lot like Passion Pit, and “Static on the Wire” works from !!!’s kitchen-sink funk-punk angle. There’s plenty of fun to be had here, but I’d find Holy Ghost!’s faithful reconstruction of ’80s synth-pop more compelling if indie or mainstream pop were currently shunning that style. But guitars are out and synthesizers are in. With the likes of La Roux, Twin Shadow, and Cut Copy marshaling exactly this set of influences for their own far more original take on electro-pop, a record as narrowly conceived and obsessively retro as this simply can’t have much of an impact. It’s a stroke of marketing ingenuity to release a record called Holy Ghost! two days after Easter, but these would-be revivalists have come a good half-decade too late for this particular resurrection.