Letter writing is a lost art form in our modern lives, but with hopes to save the USPS, cities under lockdown, and social distancing, we could all use a well-meaning letter from a dear friend every now and then. As an avid letter writer since the age of ten, I gained more accomplices from around the world during the quarantine. From aspiring shoegazers faraway from my blue expanse to parcels of Moomin tea from Finland, the words I read are pure love, love, love.
Rediscovering my favorite teenage twee bands, I unraveled a marvelous wonder of endless jangle pop songs about love, poetry, the country, and most importantly, letter writing. Twee, if you’re unfamiliar, is a subgenre of indie characterized by its childlike wonder of catchy melodies, wistful harmonies, and singing about your latest crush. So came the birth of this column B86. A play on NME’s C86, the origins of twee, I will handcraft a list of songs for you twice a month.
Here’s the first playlist to enter letter writing heaven. You’ll want to moodily stare out the window or stand in the rain while thinking about the last letter you read. If you have a certain desire or feeling to express, go write a letter. You’ll only be surprised by the outcome. Enjoy!
From the flagship band of the legendary Sarah Records, this track first appeared on their fitting 1991 12” single “Missing the Moon.” As the song begins with “From a letter at summer’s start,” I reflect on my own summertime friendships, blooming well into October. The lyrics ruminate over memories lost and rediscovered, vowing “never to kiss again / never to know again.” The warmth of the guitar brings images to mind of coastal drives in a near future. As I craft my own collage covered, hand-stitched booklets of received letters, I am left to bathe in the heartbreaking statement, “Each letter I receive I reread instantly / And wished we could be.”
United by their shared disappointment over Felt’s breakup, Acid House Kings is a lovely pop band from Sweden featuring the brothers Niklas and Johan Angergård. This is the first track of their 1992 EP Play Pop!. Beginning with cheery guitar chords, the vocals offer a poetic entanglement of images such as “She fakes apples for the sky / I wonder why.” Our attention is drawn to the singer’s romantic interest: a girl who “doesn’t smile in letters,” writing with the absence of warmth. But the narrator, holding a great amount of faith and admiration for this girl, proclaims “I don’t think it matters.” Despite the slowness of awaiting reciprocation, the song goes into classic twee repetitive territory until the very final note.
A dreamy ballad of traveling and feigning independence, the ever-so-cute Camera Obscura has orchestrated another tale of heartbreak and desire. Through soft-spoken yet eloquent lyrics, the narrator takes us on her path away from her lover through California and the Badlands. Whether the “desire” lines are metaphorical or not doesn’t matter; the longing is present. She hopes to send letters in order to repair a fallout: “I could illustrate for you my day to day / Would that mend us?” Letters, as well as time, have a way of healing and mending, if not rekindling, even the most hopeless relationships. Purity and truth prevail in the end.
Upon Graham Coxon’s recommendation, I found an arrangement of The Pretty Things titled “In The Square, The Letter, Rain.” The band may predate the twee scene for a few decades, but “The Letter” is a beautiful tale of city life woes alongside a catchy guitar hook and some tambourine. It touches on the limitations of letter writing, how unlike most direct conversations, reactions are often repressed from the page. To share one’s feelings is a precarious endeavor; to be heard without as much as a smile. “So many questions she asked / She knew I just couldn’t answer / For they were all in the past.” I will never know the words which float into a platonic lover’s mind. Until they tell me.
You cannot use the term “twee” without mentioning Belle & Sebastian, a Scottish band named after an equally charming French comic about a boy and his dog. I remember listening to this very song amidst the anxiety of writing a Valentine’s Day card back in high school. Stuart Murdoch’s voice telling me “You are too young to put all of your hopes in just one envelope” felt like a premonition that all the ideals and romanticization I had included in the letter were a bit premature. There were future prospects ahead of me; there still are. The perfect song to listen to on a “nothing day” as you’re contemplating sending a letter to a past lover yourself. Do it before you second guess yourself. Once the deed is done––it is done.
A side project of the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Meritt, Hyacinths and Thistles is a kaleidoscope of stories falling in and out of love. Each song like a late-night letter, “As You Turn to Go” featuring Momus is the lullaby that lulls you into this magical world. The lyrics are playfully written in a rainbow of colors as on the album cover. Somber but lovingly, the singer declares, “But you know you’re the star of my life story / And I’m so sorry / Let the poets struggle to describe your heart / Your art of love and your love of art.” In the unspoken moment of admiration, he hopes the girl will confess her love to him. Love is there even if everything else is passive. One-sided or not. “Well, if you ever loved me / Tell me so / As you turn to go.”
Sometimes the magic dissipates. The pen runs out of ink and the typewriter comes to a pause. The Field Mice captures the end of an era perfectly in under three minutes. The soft vocals thank the correspondent for being “so good” but state their relationship will end with this last letter. It is the kind of song you want to hear as your train reaches the end of the line, but you’re not ready to get off, still reading the letter covered in tears. Though the piano welcomes something hopeful, the singer solidifies his sorrow and his own shortcomings: “You deserve better than this here last letter / I never was one / To try.”