I didn’t believe myself when I said “I love you.” The words seemed ill-shaped for my mouth, less expressed than coughed out as reflex. It was early, but the moment seemed to call for it, and maybe I mistook my desire for the emotion as the actual emotion itself. But I knew immediately what I was offering was more prayer than declaration. The wheels were set in motion when we hadn’t yet laid any track, and — as with everything that takes place when you’re too young to understand that forests are made of trees — we proceeded uninhibited toward trainwreck.
Everyone eventually experiences their first love, then their first loss, and in most cases in-between their first major fuck-up. Yet it’s difficult not to get caught up in the urgency, that pull to go the distance at your first opportunity to discover for yourself the extremity of romance that forms the central motif of every record you’ve ever loved. You echo your record collection, superimposing the songs onto your life no matter how many degrees of separation they are removed. If childhood is a memory you experience in real time, and dreams memories you cash in advance, then it explains the seeming irony of how young people with the fewest to fall back on and so much still to discover are the most active traders of nostalgia as cultural currency.
Love, Nostalgia — the debut full-length from 23-year-old musical polymath Zach Taylor, under the alias “Dreamer Boy” — lays its motivations plainly in the album title. The record is an in-depth personal journey through the nexus of those two sensations, with both the dayglow soundscapes and Taylor’s nascent, wide-eyed perspective capturing precisely the feeling of hometown streets that go on forever at a time that feels perpetually over the edge. It’s 40 minutes of post-summer longing, a swan song for the last year of high school and the end of adolescence — when the lives of your friends are in constant motion, and relationships change who you are and then flame out and leave you with ashes of aspirations never enacted.
Speaking with me over the phone about the long-gestating project, which after a year-long incubation period finally arrived this past November, Taylor said that he “always dreamed of making an album that exists in the world of big summer themes like heartbreak and coming of age.” But his ambition got ahead of what he’d to that point been able to process, and it wasn’t until he took two years away from releasing music prior to starting work on Love, Nostalgia that he was able to come back and successfully realize his own vision.
“I think everything lined up where I had a story to tell, I had experiences, and I knew myself well enough and had the awareness to write about it,” Taylor explained. “I think a lot of times that’s all that has to happen as a writer, you have to eventually be patient enough with yourself where you get to a place you can write about these things and have the perspective on them to give to a listener.”
The other necessary component of his musical self-actualization was Bobby Knepper, a former stranger from college turned friend and housemate turned musical collaborator who co-crafted the opulent atmosphere that gives weight to the melancholic reminiscences of Love, Nostalgia. What began as casual jamming accidentally accelerated into serious intention, with the demos for what would evolve into the LP coming together within their first three months of meeting one another.
“We didn’t really know we were working on an album,” Taylor said. “There wasn’t any like ‘Oh, are we a band? What is this?’ But eventually we were in this place where we had all these demos and we knew there was an album there, and so it was like, ‘Let’s take the time to flesh this out and really dive deeper into this.’ And through that process we both got better at music and learned a lot from each other… We definitely took that next step as musicians with this.”
Together the two spent a year and a half from writing to recording painstakingly fine-tuning every detail on the album, resulting in a debut that betrays any semblance of novicehood. Love, Nostalgia boasts honey-textured production and musical-theater timing, executed from the inaugural moments of orchestral aplomb that set the stage and pull the curtain back for Taylor’s grand entrance. On that first song alone, the music glides in the sweet spot between aqueous funk and brass-accented, down-tempo soul. He sings a plea for “Simple” love where “anything could happen in the sunshine” in a playful back and forth with singer Jamiah Hudson that sounds like a deleted scene from La La Land or a Chance The Rapper interlude.
Taylor has taken to describing his approach as “cowboy pop,” a playful nod to his homebase of Nashville and perhaps the outlaw lover archetype he performs in his lyrics. He commits to the aesthetic on social media and in his press photos — the cover of Love, Nostalgia finds the songwriter draped in embroidered baby blue Western wear — and yet none of the music on the album will necessarily have you screaming out a topical “yee-haw!” Taylor recognizes the irony of him paying homage to Music City’s iconic history while in actuality being influenced by its less mythologized present.
“I think it’s cool because being here in Nashville there is this tradition of country music, and it’s really fun, but I would say a majority of the influence on our record came from being around the indie and the punk scenes and different R&B and hip-hop artists here,” Taylor said. “Instead of in a bigger city like Los Angeles, how there’s different scenes and different genres, it’s almost like the punk and indie and hip-hop kids are all in one scene; it’s kind of a melting pot.”
Yet his expression of the swirling neapolitan that is Nashville’s underground winds up approaching an ethos that is actually distinctly L.A. — prodigiously young, yet already woefully weathered. He admits to “listening to Flower Boy by Tyler, the Creator “a lot” during the album’s creation, and his sound occupies a similar thespian neo-soul. His visual for the reverb-woozy “Orange Girl” even hits a pastel palette retroism that looks like a Golf advertisement and has likely already secured Taylor a spot at Camp Flog Gnaw 2019.
But more than the Tyler-strain of Odd Future’s contemporary influence, Dreamer Boy is a particularly post-Frank Ocean artist, in the vein of Choker or Dijon. He calls Blonde “one of my favorite albums of all time,” and, like Ocean, he offers a melodramatic swagger that is singularly derived from the sun-wrecked restlessness of the Golden State. He blends genres into a cruising-down-the-one blur through a songwriting approach based in pushing a song not forward but outward — fleshing as fully as possible a mood as opposed to a story.
In other words, he’s an auteur of vibes. This is especially true of Love, Nostalgia’s more freeform back-half, beget by “Solstice” and “Fever,” tracks as dense in terms of their sticky production and interwoven hooks, but less beholden to conventional pop structures in deploying those attributes. He’s a modern internet-indebted songwriter with a toolkit wider than his actual world, presenting together digitized harmonies, trumpet stabs, palm-muted Fenders, and Disney-esque strings in a way that suggests them to be as naturally complementary as the trademark standard of guitar, bass and drums.
Most prominent among the many nodes he invokes are lo-fi hip-hop, the amphibious bedroom pop in vogue via Omar Apollo and Cuco, and the white-boy R&B of Rex Orange County and Boy Pablo. Like all of those projects, Dreamer Boy holds a seemingly limitless range. “Lavender” is all-encompassing pop, with fluidly rapped verses, chip-tuned adlibs, buzzing electric guitar, and a soulful chorus, all collapsing into a half-speed puree for its sludgy coda. “Orange Girl” starts as a coastline-ready love song before blowing up into a breaking wave of gushing autotune. That single bleeds into “Tennessee,” a 90-second outro that also functions independently as its own self-contained gel pen-drawn ballad capped by collaborator Houston Kendrick’s hesitant refrain: “I don’t wanna slow you down / Unless I wanna keep up.”
The wide scope of the tracklist naturally flows without any jarring leaps, a testament to the methodical consideration for cohesion that went into the album’s assembly. “We worked on the album for a long time, which was awesome because I had never done that before,” Taylor described. “I think up to this process I had been more anxious about music and moreso of the mindset, ‘I gotta finish the song and put it out so something can happen.’ Where it kind of works the opposite way: as soon as you start actually investing yourself more into the process, once it does come out, it’s going to be 10 times more impactful.”
That intentionality resonates, and has put Dreamer Boy out in front of crowds for the first time on tours with Still Woozy, the Marias and Omar Apollo. “Seeing the 30 people in each city who knew our music, but then also meeting like 200 people, 200 kids after that who want to come up and say what’s up and make an impression was very energizing,” Taylor said. “It all feels like it’s happening pretty fast since putting out our album in terms of what we’ve received in return from it.”
The Love, Nostalgia album cycle is all culminating to Dreamer Boy’s first-ever headlining show in Nashville, to be hosted at a historic cinema house that he hopes to curate into an experience for the local fans that have followed him thus far. Altogether it would seem as though Taylor is in the exact center of his moment, and yet while he’s learned to be patient with his songwriting, he still feels an internal exigence around his art.
“We’ve been keeping busy, but I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself to keep going,” Taylor said. “I think I’m always antsy to be working on the next album. It’s weird being back at the infantile stages… because I’m ready to be in the deep end with it.” Compared to earlier years, when Taylor described himself as “just a lost, lost boy out here,” he now trusts the process a bit more. “We have about 20 demos or so. It’s becoming clearer and clearer what that message is going to be, but I’m definitely still trying to fill in some holes and keep learning about it,” he said. It’s a labor of love, but unlike the love he labors over on the album, Taylor’s not letting him get ahead of himself: “I know it’s going to take a little time.”
Photo by Pooneh Ghana