james debate
james debate

Friday 18 December 2020

Genre Plunderphonics
Label Modular
Producers Robert Chater

we will always love you avalanches best new album 2020

The unconventional career-to-date of The Avalanches has become the stuff of mythos in the music industry. The elusive purveyors of plunderphonics stormed onto the scene in 2000 with Since I Left You, an experimental debut that would go on to define the genre and draw widespread critical and commercial acclaim. Yet for the longest time it appeared that the group may go down as a one-album wonder, the sophomore effort Wildflower taking some sixteen years before it finally saw the light of day thanks to a seemingly never-ending litany of legal, creative and personal setbacks. It was worth the wait. Wildflower turned out to be every bit as much a masterpiece as its predecessor, earning a place on this blog's top ten albums of the past decade among other accolades. 

The traditionally troublesome third album has seen no such drama, arriving a relatively brief four years after Wildflower. The result is We Will Always Love You, an album that on first listen feels very different from what the band has previously produced, yet no less brilliant.

Musically, this feels like quite the departure for the band. If the first two albums were noted for their high energy party style, WWALY feels distinctly more introspective and bittersweet. Core themes of loss and the passage of time feel like a fitting reflection of this year and it permeates throughout the production of this album. This album sees itself as a love letter to those that have come before us; samples of deceased artists from the past century, immortalised through their work. An explicit statement of love and remembrance beamed straight into the heavens. Even the album cover reflect this notion, featuring an image converted into sound and back into an image of Ann Druyan, creative director of the Voyager Golden Record project, the objectives of which dovetail closely with the ambition of this album.

This latest album is also notable for its shift away from the trademark plunderphonics of their work-to-date and into more traditional songwriting. The Avalanches still make use of samples aplenty, but with a greater focus on original instrumentation and vocals. Indeed, just about every song on this album features a completely original set of vocals from a lineup of mostly all-star collaborators including MGMT, Jamie xx, Blood Orange, Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer fame), Karen O (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame), Kurt Vile, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, and many others. 

One could be excused for worrying that this change in style might deprive the band of some of their uniqueness, but such thoughts are quickly dashed by a display of the same fundamental creativity that made the first two albums so memorable. At its heart, this is very much an Avalanches album, brimming with the same sense of nostalgia and multi-layered ingenuity that we have come to expect. If anything, the fact that the music is this good only serves to highlight how talented this group is when it comes to songwriting.

As with the first two albums, WWALY is less a collection of songs and more a single thread that runs from start to finish. Each track flows logically to the next by way of a contextually seamless interlude, like different movements of a singular piece. The music is good enough that each track can be enjoyed in isolation, but certainly on the first listen I recommend a full play with your undivided attention. For this reason it can be difficult to immediately pick just one or two stand out tracks, but on repeated listens a few key moments will emerge and stay longer in the memory.

Running Red Lights is a highlight. A dreamy and wistful pop song featuring a career best vocal performance from Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. It's a great song because it sounds so deceptively poppy, appearing on the surface like your typical radio-friendly pop song, but with enough subversion and unexpected musical deviations to retain that classic Avalanches edge. Title track We Will Always Love You, meanwhile, serves as a mission statement for the album, repurposing a long forgotten sample of the Roches into the centrepiece of what feels like a love letter beamed into space.

On the more playful side, Interstellar Love pays homage to its cover star Ann Druyan and her (literally interstellar) love story with famed scientist and father to the Voyager Golden Record, Carl Sagan. The result is a slice of feel-good and one of the album's catchier tracks. For those seeking some pure adrenaline fuelled music to dance to, Music Makes Me High is a welcome throw back to the band's sunnier previous work and a welcome respite from the album's otherwise more somber tone.

But particular mention needs to be made of the excellent collaboration with MGMT, The Divine Chord. This song is everything, a cosmic trip of the highest calibre. This collaboration takes the best qualities of the Avalanches and MGMT and produces a work of beauty that is simultaneously lonely, optimistic and oddly comforting.

These are highlights, but really there is wonderful work to be found throughout, from We Go On's tragically poignant tribute to the story of Karen Carpenter, to the mellow psychedelia of Gold Sky, amongst several others that would be worth mentioning.

As a whole, this is an excellent album. The quality of production is sublime throughout, indicative of a team of musicians who are increasingly confident in honing their craft. In a strange way though, it does sometimes feel like something has been lost without the roughness of the first two albums. Those songs weren't great because of their technical proficiency, but for their raw, carefree energy. In smoothing out the production, it sometimes feels like the music is (as strange as it is to say) a little bit too perfectly formed.

It is also a shame that by the time WWALY released in mid-December, we had already heard most of the songs. No fewer than six singles were released in advanced of the album's launch, some as far back as February. No doubt this bizarre rollout will have been to some extent a result of the pandemic, but it does mean that on first listen the album may not blow you away as much as it might have done had you been hearing all these songs fresh for the first time.

This is a great album from a band that is clearly not afraid to evolve their style and in doing so reveal an entirely new depth to their songwriting talent. While it may not quite hit the same ecstatic heights as their landmark first two albums, We Will Always Love You is nevertheless a wildly memorable cosmic ride and arguably their most finessed and technically accomplished work-to-date. It still feels weird to live in a world with regular new Avalanches albums, but I suspect I could get used to this.

Must Listen :
Running Red Lights

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